In 2021, a New York-based renewable energy company will break ground on Columbus Solar Park. This 50-megawatt facility will be built on the 173-acre site of Franklin County’s closed former landfill southwest of Downtown along I-71. BQ Energy will sell the power generated by the project to AEP Energy Partners in order to meet customers’ renewable energy needs while also supporting future renewable energy needs for the community.
A plot of land once used to bury our trash will be transformed into a source of economic activity and enough clean energy to power 5,000 homes.
Columbus Solar Park will be one of the most visible undertakings of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, known as SWACO. But it is only part of a larger strategy to leverage our waste stream for the economic benefit and long-term growth of the region.
At the core of this new direction is an understanding that as our community continues to grow, continues to prosper, and continues to be environmentally sustainable, we must manage our waste stream so that these outcomes remain possible.
Other elements of the strategy include a partnership with Rev1 Ventures to support startups and innovators, and an exploration of a potential industrial hub and business park on a plot of land near the current Franklin County Sanitary Landfill.
While SWACO continues to operate the landfill, we are no longer a landfill-centered operation. In the past several years, we have enhanced our mission to become the go-to resource for recycling, composting and other measures to divert waste from the landfill. Businesses are in need of such a resource as they demonstrate to customers and shareholders their commitment to environmental protection.
Thanks to the leadership of businesses, municipalities and residents, Franklin County has reached an impressive 50% waste diversion rate, which is significantly higher than the national average of 34%.
In the process, we have been excited to discover the economic output and additional potential of waste diversion. For example, we learned through an economic impact study completed in June of 2018 there were 400 Central Ohio businesses employing 5,000 people and generating $1 billion in annual revenues that rely on recyclables for their operations.
I believe it is SWACO’s role and responsibility to attract and support even more businesses, jobs and investment around recycling and sustainability.
To fully achieve this, we need to do a better job separating recyclable material from the waste stream and preparing it for manufacturers who in turn create new products. A recent study demonstrated that nearly 76% of the waste going into the landfill could be recycled. The challenge will be to sort the materials in an economically and technologically feasible manner and then attracting companies to our region that can use it for manufacturing.
This would be somewhat akin to how SWACO already harnesses gas from the landfill. Using more than 200 gas extraction wells and miles of underground pipes, we capture the gas and then sell it to a private company, Aria Energy, which cleans it and pumps it into a natural gas pipeline — where it creates enough energy every day to power thousands of homes for a year. The system generates millions of dollars per year in revenue while also removing greenhouse gases from the air.
Along the same lines, SWACO now seeks to extract value from the trash in the landfill. To that end, we have been working with an engineering firm to determine the infrastructure we would need to achieve the most effective and efficient way to divert valuable material from the landfill and into markets. We are moving purposely but methodically, operating under the principle that it is better to do it right than to do it fast.
This is the model for SWACO’s overall economic development strategy. Our process is not very flashy, but it is sound. We are not putting all of our eggs in one basket because we understand that not every seed we plant will bear fruit.
More and more businesses are convinced there is a connection between jobs and sustainability. As SWACO explores the economic potential of our waste stream, I am excited to help prove them right.