Natural gas not early option for Turner Tract

Published 10:36 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

COURTLAND—When the Turner Tract in Southampton County was developed, providing natural gas as a utility at the industrial park was not included because it was too costly.

The lack of natural gas initially discouraged a wood pellet manufacturer from building in the park. To avoid a rezoning battle, Enviva Courtland Pellets changed its mind now that getting natural gas to the Turner Tract will cost less.

Now that nearby Ashland, formerly known as Hercules, is converting its General Thomas Highway plant from electric to natural gas, the cost of running natural gas to the Enviva plant is expected to run a much lower $700,000 to $900,000.

“Natural gas wasn’t even close (to the Turner Tract) until Ashland expanded it this past year,” said County Administrator Mike Johnson. “The cost was prohibitive to do it as a speculative move.”

“When we looked at all aspects of the site and to provide natural gas without a customer, the cost would’ve been on the county,” added John Smolak, president of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. “I don’t remember the estimates to bring it all the way from Courtland to the Turner site, but it was several million dollars.”

The lack of natural gas at the 492-acre county-owned Turner Tract on Rose Valley Road off General Thomas Highway was one reason Enviva did not want to develop its $75 million to $85 million plant there. The Bethesda, Md.-based company opted for 327 acres on Shady Brook Trail, which would’ve required rezoning.

Residents fought the rezoning, and Enviva announced Thursday it would buy 120 acres in the Turner Tract for $1.3 million.

Enviva was interested in the Shady Brook Trail property because the company needs natural gas for its operations. A three-mile natural gas pipeline was recently installed along the roadway from Highway 58 for use by Ashland.

Ashland will invest $5.7 million to convert its steam-making process from electric to natural gas, which also covers the cost of installing the natural gas pipeline.

The Columbia Gas pipeline was sized for the Turner Tract, said Ashland Plant Manager Andy Chapman.

“We paid for a smaller line and the gas company (opted to pay more) for the larger line to feed the Turner Tract in the future,” Chapman said.

Ashland currently buys steam from the nearby Dominion Virginia Power plant, which plans to convert from coal to wood for producing electricity. Steam is used as heat in the paper chemical products-making process.

The county will rebate 10 percent of Enviva’s costs over 10 years for installing the pipeline.

The availability of natural gas should make the rest of the industrial park more marketable.

“Anytime you add a utility that further helps open the doors for other potential users that require gas, (it helps),” Smolak said.

The Turner Tract gets water from wells on site and is serviced by the sewage treatment plant in Courtland.