By Gina Malone
Art and sustainability have made a beautiful marriage for 12 years at Dillsboro’s Green Energy Park (GEP), where methane gas from a defunct landfill powers a blacksmith and metal shop, ceramic kilns and a glassblowing studio.
GEP was repurposed from the old trash transfer station that sat alongside the landfill, which closed in 1999. What was an eyesore filled with 500 tons of loose trash is today a landscaped facility with an art gallery and environmentally friendly and innovative creative spaces.
“We’ve been pulling gas for about 10 years now,” says Timm Muth, director of GEP. Wells were drilled into the old landfill, creating a “gentle vacuum,” he says. Underground pipes were laid to bring gas to the building where it fuels everything from kilns to the blacksmith shop where the three forges and the foundry are the only ones in the world running on methane gas. At the high temperatures needed for the facility, the methane is burned in the cleanest way possible, keeping it out of the atmosphere.
There are old landfills not being used all over the country, Muth says, but often people don’t know how to develop them in a beneficial way. Large landfills can generate electricity, but small landfills, like the one at Dillsboro are not practical for that purpose. “Little landfills are a different animal,” Muth says. “You have to look at them from a community standpoint.” He is particularly proud, he says, of the center and its three-pronged mission of education, environmental protection and economic development in the region.
And, from the center’s economic standpoint, this method of sustainability makes a lot of sense as well. “We don’t have to pay for gas,” Muth says. “Ordinarily, that’s a big expense for artists.” Many studios, faced with $2,000-$3,000 in propane expenses each month, find it hard to make a go of it, he adds. Artists are able to rent equipment at GEP for only $10 an hour. Many are college students from nearby Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College. “We want to help those kids have a place they can come and do work,” Muth says. “We provide an opportunity for these young people to develop skills.”
Cole Johnson, a full-time instructor in the glassblowing studio, found his love of working with glass after taking a class at GEP and then becoming an intern there. Last year he completed study at the prestigious JamFactory in Australia.
Each year the center has visitors from all over the world, many of them officials who want to understand how the process for fueling studios and creative spaces works and how they can apply the same green methods back home. Workshops are held regularly beginning in the spring, attracting curious creatives of all ages. “We bring a lot of tourists in,” Muth says, which has a favorable impact on nearby towns.
The center also provides a means of connecting regional children with art. School groups are frequent visitors and, each September, GEP holds the Youth Arts Festival, a participatory learning event with everything—from hands-on activities to face painting—free to the public. “I think it’s important this far out,” Muth says. “If kids don’t get exposed to art, they may not see it.”
It is inevitable that the landfill gas will run out. At GEP, they have already begun developing a waste vegetable oil burner that is versatile for ceramics, blacksmithing and glassblowing for when it does. This efficiency in using byproducts for a creative purpose appeals to the local mindset, Muth says. “Local folks have been here for generations. They’re a very self-reliant group. This resonates with them. They see it as a way of being thrifty.”
Nick Breedlove, executive director for the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, sees GEP as an asset to residents and visitors alike who want to learn about sustainability and decreasing their carbon footprint. “In addition to seeing live demonstrations from practicing artisans, visitors can take home one-of-a-kind pieces fired, forged and blown at Green Energy Park,” he says. “The Park affords artisans a quality space at a fraction of the cost they would pay elsewhere, all the while limiting the environmental impact of the work they do by utilizing reclaimed landfill gas.”
Green Energy Park is located at 100 Green Energy Park Road in Dillsboro. Gallery hours are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. To learn more about tours, workshops and other events, visit JCGEP.org.