ROANOKE RAPIDS — Halifax County is now on the forefront of solar energy technology in the Southeast thanks to a collaboration between the county and green-energy companies like Geenex.
A new solar panel was constructed outside of the Halifax County Visitors Center Thursday as an example of the panels that will eventually be built at the old Halifax Airport.
“It’s a great day ... They (Geenex and its partners) bring a new industry in Halifax County,” said Cathy Scott, executive director for the Halifax County Economic Development Commission.
During “Solar Day in Halifax County” Geenex CEO Georg Veit addressed a crowd of county officials, business owners and interested residents about the progress his company has made.
“This is the start of the project we’re building out there (the old airport), so in a way, this is the first day of construction of this project,” Veit said.
The new panel just outside of the center, was constructed by workers from Schletter, a company that helps produce frames for solar panels.
The construction Geenex is working on is not going to be all about solar panels though.
Scott noted it would create jobs for the county. Geenex is obligated to create 12 full-time jobs, but there would be more opportunities when it comes to building the solar panels and property. Mike Whitson, president of Paradigm Consulting Group, a partner with Geenex, estimated between 50 and 100 people would be needed to build the project.
Veit said the company is also planning on building a Solar Center of Excellence, which would provide a means of education about solar energy for residents and visitors. The center would use one of the pre-existing buildings on the property.
Whitson said he wants Halifax County to became the focal point for solar energy.
“This has been a long road for me,” Whitson said. “When I was wondering curiously why Halifax County had two airports ... oh there’s an old airport, maybe we could have a good use for it.”
Thus began the work to create a solar power field. With most of the land already developed and ready to build on, the solar companies just have to re-purpose buildings they need and start installing the solar panels. The plan is to develop 120 acres for solar power.
The Center for Excellence would bring together local schools and colleges to develop educational initiatives and training related to solar energy. Beyond that, Scott said, it would also be a means of bringing in tourists to see how solar energy can be produced.
“We want to really make Halifax County the solar center of the Southeast, and we’re really well on our way to accomplishing that goal,” Whitson said.
Once the first round of buildings is complete, Whitson said there could be an expansion on the land. Scott said the use of the land would bring “income for idle property.”
The construction of a sawmill in Enfield could lead to the formation of a “cluster” of related businesses around it.
Klausner Trading U.S.A. President Thomas Mende recently told the Halifax Business Horizons membership the company’s existing sawmills have experienced “clustering” around those facilities.
At one of the mills, Mende said, a facility which takes the sawmill’s sawdust for use, a palette company has set up shop, a pellet company has set up shop, and there are facilities which take resin from the wood Klausner uses as well.
This clustering, Mende said, means job creation, tax revenue and business revenue, and is something he’s expecting to happen when the company constructs Klausner Mill No. 2 in Enfield.
“Those companies that form those clusters can get 40 to 60 percent of their raw material from one source,” Mende said.
“It’s a model of economic development that makes the most sense and is definitely a good business model.”
Mende said Klausner’s mills employ a total of around 1,400 people, though the actual sawing of the wood is surprisingly efficient.
“The sawmill is one person,” Mende said.
“But there are eight people planning the diagrams, looking at sizes, looking at orders we have, and trying to determine how we can get the most lumber out of each log.”
Klausner’s equipment, such as the saws being put into the Enfield facility, are capable of meeting every lumber measurement currently in use anywhere in the world, Mende said, which sets Klausner apart in that they are capable of exporting more wood than their competitors.
Mende said he expects big plans out of the Enfield mill, and he’s looking forward to continuing to work with Cathy Scott and the Halifax County Economic Development Board.
“We met with a number of economic development boards across the east,” Mende said.
“Cathy Scott and her people were always professional, always a step ahead of our problems.”
The Daily Herald Publisher Titus Workman said Mende’s remarks seemed to be very good news for Enfield and for the county in general, and he left with a lot of respect for Mende and Klausner.
“I was very impressed,” Workman said.
“And I was also impressed with the way (Mende) described how Klausner separates themselves from their competitors.”
Don Bright is excited to watch the lumber industry come back to life.
Based on economic trends, he believes the demand for products from his company will outpace the ability to produce. That is why the company expanded.
Bright is president of Meherrin River Forest Products, lauded last month by Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker for the company's effort to operate a mill in Halifax County. A release from the governor indicated Meherrin would create 40 jobs and invest more than $1.8 million over the next three years at the old Coastal Lumber location.
Bright said opening the Weldon mill is a great fit with the Alberta, Va.- based operation. He credited Cathy Scott, the Halifax County Economic Development Commission and the North Carolina Department of Commerce with selling the greater Roanoke Valley's economic possibilities. Meherrin was also looking at sites in Virginia and South Carolina.
Bright said this area has high quality white oak. "One of our top products," he said. "This is a good region for Cypress, too. Another thing is the ports of Norfolk (Va.) and Wilmington. It's the perfect scenario for exporting this lumber."
Bright, a graduate of Virginia Tech, started out with Morgan Lumber Company as sawmill manager. He was promoted to vice president within a few years, then headed the design and construction of a Continuous Dry kiln — the first of its kind in Virginia and one of only four in the world.
He spent a lot of time in the mill. He believes in a hands-on approach. He left Morgan Lumber to start Meherrin River Forest Products in Alberta, Va., in 2011 with Union Level Land and Timber, and C.A. Wright Logging.
Meherrin tailors products to its customers' specific needs, producing more than 10 million board feet of lumber each year. The majority of its products are hardwoods. Bright said it has been two years since there were any logs on the Weldon yard, but in the next two weeks he plans to be sawing logs. By the end of the year, he should have 30 employees.
The facility will not be drying lumber initially, but will begin that process "in the not too distant future." Bright said the company will also provide wood for Enviva wood pellets in Gaston.
Having heard a lot about the workforce in the area, Bright was concerned about finding quality people to work the yard, but it turns out it was an unfounded worry. "We have been overrun with people wanting jobs, who are willing to work," he said. "They've done a lot for my soul."
Because of shutdowns in other lumber companies, there is an overwhelming number of well-seasoned workers applying. Add to that Halifax Community College is training workers, and Bright believes there will be no problem finding quality employees.
"When the dust settles, HCC will assist in cultivating the next generation of Meherrin River employees," he said. "This area provides a talented workforce, especially for the wood industry."
Bright said this is an ideal time for those interested in the field to get involved. They can get hands-on training by some of the best in the field and have growth opportunities as that group of employees ages out to retirement.
Bright is looking for people who can drive forklifts and operate heavy machinery, general and skilled laborers, like saw filers, and maintenance workers. He also needs office workers to answer the phones and handle information.
"It lends itself to people who like to see something accomplished at the end of the day," Bright said. "They like to make something happen. We're looking for the guy who's not satisfied at sitting at a desk all-day long. We generate a world class product from a natural renewable resource. I take pride in this industry. We're not pumping oil out of the ground. Our products are sought after around the world."
He said the company is making major renovations to the facility that will include expanding the "Green Chain" building so workers will be fully covered under the building. "Traditionally when it rained hard, they got wet," he said. "We just don't work like that with our business."
Bright said typically, employees work a 50-hour week. "It's single shift, traditionally," he said. "It's just the way we like to work it. A 50-hour week is fairly comfortable."
Applications are available at the Employment Security Commission at Becker Village Mall in Roanoke Rapids.
"There's going to be a lot of wood rolling through this facility," Bright said, adding he expects the company will produce 27.5 million feet of hardwood lumber each year.