After nearly 13 years of converting disposable waste into money, Green Knight Economic Development Corp. has been able to fund $1.6 million or more in economic development projects in the Slate Belt – and continues on its mission to bring industries back to the quarry-ridden community in northern Northampton County.
In 1998, a group of the region's residents formed a task force with one challenge in mind; to develop a gas-to-energy plant on a local landfill. The plant would harness the methane gas from the landfill's waste and convert it into electricity, which would then be sold as renewable energy with the profits re-invested into developing the Slate Belt's neighborhoods.
“We are a community partner and wanted to find a unique way to put money back into the community,” said Scott Perin, district manager of Grand Central Sanitary Landfill in Plainfield Township, a subsidiary of Waste Management.
In 1999, the nonprofit Green Knight Economic Development Corp. was formed to serve communities and businesses in the Pen Argyl School District municipalities of Pen Argyl, Wind Gap and Plainfield Township. (The Pen Argyl High School mascot is the Green Knight, hence the name.)
“Green Knight has a very unique business plan to help economic growth in the Slate Belt,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. “They are somewhat one of the best-kept secrets in the Lehigh Valley.”
Made up of a nine-person volunteer board of directors, Green Knight secured a $9.2 million bank loan and contracted MSG Associates Inc. of Wind Gap to lead the development of the energy plant, with the plant's profits to go toward getting Slate Belt businesses back on the map.
“So many people in the Slate Belt have to commute to jobs outside of the area,” said Carlton Snyder, founding member and Green Knight president. “With our organization, we hope to turn that around and bring industries back in.”
Two years later in 2001, the Green Knight Energy Center became a reality on land at Grand Central Sanitary Landfill in Plainfield Township. It was the first privately owned energy center in the United States, Snyder said, with the ability to produce nearly 10 megawatts of electric power at one time, enough energy to power almost 8,000 homes.
“This project was a good opportunity to put together a local organization to subsidize economic development in our towns,” Perin said.
Converting methane gas into energy may sound simple, but it is quite complex.
Waste Management trucks haul up to 3,000 tons per day of trash to the landfill. As the waste decays, it naturally generates methane gas. A diverse collection system gathers this flammable gas and transports it to Green Knight's energy generating plant on the landfill site.
At the plant, the methane gas is burned as fuel in three turbine-driven generators, each producing nearly three megawatts of electric power. The electricity produced is sold as renewable power to Exelon Corp., a wholesale energy provider based in Chicago and with operations in Pennsylvania, which then sells the power to its customers.
Waste Management operates and maintains the energy center, under the guidance of Green Knight's board of directors, and charges the organization a quarterly fee for the collection process of the methane gas, along with a $1 yearly fee to lease the land for the facility.
Green Knight uses 75 percent of its profits to fund – in the form of grants – economic development projects in the Pen Argyl School District. By offering a financial incentive, the organization hopes to attract quality businesses to its area.
Incentives are based on the number and quality of full-time jobs that each potential new business would create. Additional incentives are offered in instances where funds might be needed for the relocation of an existing business.
“They have been a tremendous asset to this area,” said Laura McLain, executive director of the Slate Belt Chamber of Commerce. “We have a lot of property in the Slate Belt that is available for development, and, because of Green Knight, our economic future looks very hopeful.”
The remaining 25 percent of Green Knight's profits goes toward enhancements and improvements to the energy center and to local nonprofit organizations and educational support in the community, including partial college scholarships to Pen Argyl High School graduates. Combined, Green Knight has given more than $250,000 to nonprofits and as scholarships.
According to Snyder, the work of Green Knight members is not nearly finished.
“One of the things I am most proud of is that we started this organization with nine members, all volunteers, and seven of those founding members are still a part of it today,” Snyder said. “That's pretty admirable.”
A recent success story for Green Knight was its ability to match the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's funding of $1.01 million for the development and construction of the Slate Belt YMCA in Pen Argyl, which is planning a grand opening next summer.
“The Green Knights aren't making this happen for us; they are making it happen for the people in the Slate Belt,” said Lyndsey Frigm, Greater Valley YMCA's coordinator of institutional advancement. “They see a YMCA in the Slate Belt as beneficial to economic development and crucial to community survival and improvement.”
In recognition of its development efforts, Green Knight was presented in October with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. partner of the year award.
“We give an award once a year to an organization who works closely with us in support of economic development in the Greater Lehigh Valley,” said Cunningham of the LVEDC. “Green Knights are really an economic force in the Slate Belt.”
Green Knight was instrumental in the Slate Belt Industrial Center project in Plainfield Township, helping to bring the Canadian masonry and stone company Techo-Bloc to the site, and with it more than 50 jobs.
Green Knight contributed in excess of $350,000 for the project, including funds to the developer for the costs to build the shell buildings, and to Techo-Bloc as an incentive to buy the site and relocate its business.
Green Knight now is backing a proposed redevelopment project at the former 55-acre tire pyrolysis site of J.H. Beers Inc. in Pen Argyl. It's a site that has become an environmental hazard, like many of the abandoned slate quarries across the region, according to Snyder.
Once the site is deemed environmentally safe, the development of an industrial park is expected to begin.
“We certainly brought some attention to our community,” Snyder said. “We came a long way and have created some great projects, becoming a valuable commodity in the Slate Belt area.”