Jefferson Elementary School was Pulaski County’s oldest. It was also the last of the county’s abandoned schools — before Oct. 11, anyway.
It’s been crumbling since 1993, when it let out students for the final time. But a Pulaski-based business held an open house last month to celebrate its plans to renovate the century-old structure for an experimental, indoor farming project.
The pilot project is a collaboration between two companies in town — agriculture technology company Vegg Inc. and carbon-capture business MOVA Technologies — and the goal is to combine indoor, or vertical, agriculture with an experimental carbon capture system to create what company principals call carbon neutral agriculture.
If it works in the old school during the next year or so, they see a future in which they populate similar buildings on the Eastern Seaboard, revolutionizing both farming and sustainability.
“We definitely can appreciate all the congratulations,” Vegg CEO Cody Journell told a group of residents, politicians, county and town officials and investors on Oct. 11. “But there’s a lot of work.”
A lot of work across the county, in fact, to approach its goal of becoming the nation’s greenest county government. County supervisors have permitted a solar farm that would be the third largest on the Eastern Seaboard and could provide 280 megawatts of power. A wind farm that could supply 150 megawatts is in its early stages. The county’s own streamlined and user-friendly processes have already allowed residents to install at least 36 residential solar arrays, which the county’s website says generate 248,000 watts.
Even the county landfill is part of the picture, with a methane conversion plant that generates 5 megawatts of electricity, Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said. Add that to the Appalachian Power-operated Claytor Dam, which generates a renewable 75 megawatts.
“We’re really trying to advance renewables in the county,” Sweet said during a conversation in his office, before the Vegg event.
Vegg’s Jefferson Elementary project puts it on the list with other local, national and international companies with operations in the county, including Volvo — which has added electric trucks to its fleet and operates its factory on renewable energy — vertical farmer Red Sun Farms and electricity-centric Trova Commercial Vehicles.
It all adds together on the Pulaski County ledger as officials work to realize a triple bottom line economy, Sweet said. That is an economic concept in which groups assess success not only by financial numbers, but via social and environmental factors as well. He noted that both the town and the county still face “doodle dust” — slang for heavy metal waste from acid and sulfide production — contaminating their creeks.
“We’ve completely shifted focus” from that type of industry, he said. “We’re working with the MOVAs, with the Volvos, with the Trovas, with the Veggs. This is what we want, because it’s good for the environment; it’s good for our citizens and our workforce [and] it’s good for our bottom lines, too, in so many different ways. So we’re not going to take just one of those three [bottom lines]. We’re gonna focus our efforts and energy and selectivity on all three of those things.”
Residential solar has brought the quickest results. The county is among three in Virginia to receive “gold” designation from the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Solsmart program, Sweet said. Solsmart, according to its website, helps municipalities and regional organizations become solar power leaders. The program provides free technical assistance to help local governments expand solar energy use.
Pulaski County’s gold designation, which it received in 2020, means that the county has streamlined permitting for solar installations; that officials have educated themselves and informed the community about utility-scale solar opportunities; and that it has marketed itself as a “solar friendly locality,” according to county documents.
The county encoded its efforts into its comprehensive plan, in which its policy “supports sustainable building practices, energy efficiency and renewable energy development.”
Sweet told the Vegg open house crowd that the county is working toward platinum status by 2024. Criteria for that include installing solar panels on public facilities and land and providing instant approval for residential panel installation, according to solsmart.org.
“This notable designation will further provide our citizens and business community with the highest level and ease of access to residential and commercial solar,” he said.
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Vegg’s new installation is likely closer to reality, or at least closer to what Journell and others called “proof of concept,” than the giant solar and wind farms.
Journell and Luke Allison, who met when both were students at Virginia Tech, became reacquainted around the Pulaski real estate market. Journell, a Blacksburg-based real estate agent, and Allison, an investor and project manager for a Pulaski developer, teamed to create Vegg.
Allison also works for MOVA as its communications manager, and he directs MOVA’s A.M. Squires Trust. Squires, better known as Arthur, was a Virginia Tech professor who had been part of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The chemical engineering professor died in 2012, leaving in his namesake trust ideas including the filtration system that Vegg will use at the old school building. Steve Critchfield, a Pulaski-based developer who was associated with Squires, formed MOVA in 2016 to commercialize Squires’ patents, including the concept for carbon capture technology.
Four years later, MOVA teamed with Virginia Tech to prove its concept: a patented filtration system that can remove pollutants from the air to use in agriculture, fossil fuel energy production, shipping and direct air capture.
The next step was finding a commercial partner for a pilot test. Allison had introduced Critchfield and Journell, a Giles County native who had spent significant time on his grandfather’s farm. They formed Vegg and bought the building with $100,000 in loans, split evenly between the Pulaski County Economic Development Authority and the town of Pulaski, Allison said. The developers will receive historic rehabilitation tax credits, which Allison said will pay for about 40% of the building work.
MOVA, which earlier this year was a member of the RAMP business accelerator cohort in Roanoke, received a $200,000 Department of Energy grant to conduct the pilot project in the renovated Jefferson School. While VEGG teams with Richmond-based Pod Farms LLC on tent-based hydroponic growing inside the school’s former auditorium, the MOVA technology, if it works in this particular system, would break new ground in controlled environment agriculture.
Here’s the trick: Plants require carbon dioxide, or CO2, to grow, but they also release it as they grow. Indoor growers have to add carbon dioxide into their systems, and they burn fossil fuels to do it. MOVA’s panel bed filtration system provides a closed loop, recycling the CO2.
“This would be the world’s first direct air capture to supplemental CO2 for indoor grow operations,” Allison said.
MOVA also recently raised $2 million in a “friends and family” seed money round. The technology uses up to four separate chambers to sort gas streams through filters, then separate and store them. It could work in natural gas-fired power plants, cement manufacturing plants, poultry houses and more, according to Critchfield.
“There is a market for pretty much every pollutant if it’s separated,” he said.
The company believes that it could cost $20 per ton of carbon capture, at least half the cost of existing technologies.
“What I really am excited about is that closing the round is going to allow us to go beyond research and development,” Critchfield said in a recent interview. “We are now actively pursuing the market side … which is agriculture. That to me is the most important side. The fun part is going out and figuring out where the markets are, how to bring home the bacon, so to speak.”
On Vegg’s end, the idea is to lease space at the school to small- and medium-sized vertical growers. Would-be farmers facing high real estate and construction costs could have an option to get started quickly, Journell said.
“So instead of them having to go out and purchase real estate, they can actually come in and lease space and take that capital requirement off their hands and … hopefully make the venture that much more profitable,” he said.
In October, the 25,000-square-foot building was still crumbling in places, with pieces of ceiling hanging down and graffiti sprayed about the old auditorium area. One wing of the building had previously collapsed and will eventually host a greenhouse. Vegg will have the grow operation tests rolling with Pod Farms and MOVA by January.
“There’s a lot of good bones at the Jefferson School,” Journell said. “It’s obviously had its set of issues with roofs and vandalism, a little bit, but I think it’s going to look great when we get it back up to speed.”
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A couple of weeks after the open house, Pulaski got what looks like another green win. A Wytheville-based third-party logistics company will spend more than $2 million to expand a Dublin facility, creating 58 new jobs in the process, according to the governor’s office. Camrett Logistics aims to “usher the company into its new era as green supply chain experts,” the company president, Cameron Peel, said in a news release.
Sweet, the county administrator for about seven years, sees himself as a marketer. He is pitching the county and its towns to outside companies, including data centers, and would-be residents. (His goal is to get the county population to 40,000 by 2030; it was about 33,700 in 2022, according to census figures, and the county is working to increase its housing stock, he said.) These developments make the marketing job easier.
The coming wind and solar farms — not always popular projects in other rural Virginia counties — have received little pushback, due in large part to their locations and their negligible impact on views, Sweet said.
“I mean, how do you market something to someone if you can’t market it to yourself?” he said. “Doesn’t make any sense. So this is more than a job. It is more than a career. I mean, it truly is. [It’s] placemaking and leaving a legacy. … I want the name on top of my children’s diploma to mean as much as it possibly can. … I want them to be proud of the address they put on their resume. You know, I want that so much.
“And not in an indoctrinating pride, but a true sincere pride in where they come from. So I work with as much intentionality as I can. What would break my heart more than anything is for my kids to tell me, ‘Well, I can’t raise my kids here.’”