Brownfield Developer Jim Jacoby Is Aglow Over Alternative Energy Business

Brownfield Developer Jim Jacoby Is Aglow Over Alternative Energy Business

On the 15th floor of his office building overlooking Atlantic Station, Jim Jacoby sits in the conference room, the sleeves of his plaid shirt rolled up almost to his elbows. Site plans, charts and renderings fill the perimeter of the room. The evidence of a serial entrepreneur is broken only by a huge saltwater aquarium filled with florescent-looking fish.

The founder, CEO and chairman of Atlanta-based Jacoby Development is perhaps best known for his work redeveloping Atlantic Station, the 138-acre mixed-use project on the former site of Atlantic Steel that has become synonymous with smart growth and a rejuvenated Midtown Atlanta.

Jacoby jokes that his push to build more sustainable, urban projects is penance for all of the Wal-Mart stores he developed early in his career. But he’s come a long way since he founded his company in 1977. Today, the developer has a firm footing in the alternative energy business.

Through a public-private partnership of Jacoby Energy, Waste Management, DeKalb County and Atlanta Gas Light, this year Jacoby began selling natural gas from the local Live Oak Landfill to Atlanta Gas Light. The sales contract spans 25 years.

“We’re extracting the methane, we’re cleaning it, we’re compressing it, getting it to pipeline quality and we’re putting it into Atlanta Gas Light’s line,” he says. “So we’re gas producers.”

The expansion to alternative energy for Jacoby started in 2001 with a project in Hawaii. Kona Kai Ola was a proposed massive development spanning more than 350 acres, eventually scrapped because of an unfavorable political climate. The mixed-use community, which never came to fruition, was to be based around he use of alternative energy. Water taken from 3,000 feet under the ocean, for instance, was to be used to air-condition the entire project.

One ancillary venture for the firm from that period was bottled water—Kona Deep, marketed as 2,000-year-old water free of acid rain. Plastic bottles, even for such healthy water, however, are far from sustainable. “We were looking for packaging that would be biodegradable.”

The packaging problem was not solved, but research to prevent landfill leachate from seeping into and killing coral reefs did lead Jacoby to a new technology, plasma arc gasification. This is a process in which garbage is heated to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which vaporizes the trash and turns it into plasma, or gas, that is then used to generate electricity.

“[Plasma arc gasification] is the holy grail because my vision in the long term is to reclaim landfills where it’s great real estate in the heart of cities, like Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill,” says Jacoby. Despite headway with the technology in Hawaii and securing $100 million in special purpose revenue bonds from the state of Hawaii to build a waste-to-energy plant, the project never saw the light of day.

Although the Atlanta developer gave up on the alternative energy plant in Hawaii, he did not give up on the technology. In 2006, St. Lucie County, Fla. awarded Geoplasma LLC, a Jacoby subsidiary, the rights to design, build, own and operate an estimated $400-million plasma arc gasification facility.

“The issue [with the St. Lucie project] is economics today. You need to get a purchase power agreement with a power company like Florida Power. To date, it has not been willing to negotiate something that made some sense,” says Jacoby. A purchase power agreement, known as a PPA, is a legal contract between an electricity generator and a power purchaser.

Back home in Atlanta, another opportunity, what Jacoby describes as a “mini Atlantic Station” arose. After Ford Motor Co. closed its Atlanta Assembly Plant in Hapeville, a 122-acre site adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Jacoby purchased the property for an undisclosed sum in June 2008. A $20 million remediation of the site under Georgia's brownfield act is now near completion.

The development Jacoby envisions for the brownfield is an aviation business park called Aerotropolis that could eventually include office, retail, hotel and airport parking. In April, the developer entered into a partnership agreement with Norcross, Ga.-based manufacturer Suniva to install high-efficiency solar cells atop the parking lot structure. Aerotropolis is projected to cost $1.5 billion and take 10 years to complete.

Jacoby’s passion for sustainability may be attributed to his belief that using alternative energy to make greener projects reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But undoubtedly his decision-making has also been influenced by economics and recent government support of alternative energy ventures.

For his part, Jacoby is looking at all incentive options, ranging from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act ($787 billion stimulus package) to the proposed climate change bill that is currently tied up in the U.S. Senate.

“Solar works today because of the tax credits, which gives you a 30% rebate on your cost of solar,” maintains Jacoby. “The government has said it wants solar to happen, it has leveled the playing field. That’s why we’re working on a lot of solar projects.”

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