The Electricity in your Garbage (Part 1)

T. Caswell

Biomass Gather ’round, dear readers, and I’ll tell you a little story that stinks. Even though it is filled with disagreeable smells, I think it will please you, especially if you’re among those folks who would rather not live in a dark, cold world. It’s a tale of “biomass,” that stuff that often starts out rank but ends up producing sweet, clean power.

Biomass is a word that’s new to most people, and you aren’t likely to hear it tossed around over Sunday dinner at Auntie Myrtle’s. But you can bet you will be exposed to it plenty in coming years.
 
Although the term has several definitions, here it is used to mean piles or containers of organic matter that can be tapped for energy. The list of biomass materials is long—agricultural and food waste, wood chips, yard clippings, microorganisms, animal byproducts and many other things.

Among the prime fodder of biomass scientists are hundreds of substances that aren’t bashful about giving off sinus-clearing scents. Yes, many of today’s biomass pioneers just love castoffs that reek. These men and women dance through a universe of aromas that are not welcome in the better parts of town. The stink from cow pies. From chicken dirt. From festering mountains of garbage. And, hold on to your tear glands, even rivers of onion juice.

On July 17, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a Southern California farming company that is using onion juice to generate electricity and to save, it projects, more than $1 million a year. The company, Gills Onions, with only about 450 employees, isn’t some AIG-size conglomerate, but it thinks big: It will shave $700,000 a year off the electricity bill at its 14-acre plant in Oxnard by burning biomass fuel in a system that also will reduce the company’s waste disposal cost by $400,000 annually.

The system, called the first of its kind to convert onion waste into electricity, was unveiled last month. (Click here to see a picture of Gills’ anaerobic digester and a diagram of the system.)

Co-owner Steve Gill explains that the plant uses two fuel cells in creating electrical current. The procedure starts with the 150 tons of waste produced daily in the processing of onions for supermarkets and other buyers. From each day’s waste is extracted 30,000 gallons of pungent onion juice, which is mixed with microorganisms provided by brewer Anheuser-Busch (“This bacterium’s for you”?). And, voilà! … biogas—burnable methane that ultimately yields enough electricity to run the plant’s extensive refrigeration and lighting. I’m oversimplifying all this, but you get the idea: A company will save major money by using solid waste that normally would be discarded or sold for fertilizer or cattle feed.

Onion juice Gill, who says the company has received more than $3 million in government and utility incentives, estimates that its $9.5 million investment in the power-generation system will pay for itself in less than six years. And—this will make you greenies out there happy—as much as 30,000 tons of “carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions” are being eliminated each year. That cutback of CO2 won’t reverse global warming, but I promise you it won’t make it worse.

In this case, everyone seems to be winning: business, Southern California and the planet. What more could a child of Mother Nature hope for? A technologically innovative firm is creating substantial amounts of clean electricity while lightening the agricultural waste stream by thousands of tons a year.

But don’t pop the Dom Pérignon just yet. It’s one thing to operate a biomass system at a single location but quite another to deal with the daunting problems of science, infrastructure, expense and human habit that stand in the way of, say, a nationwide biogas system. An expert quoted in the L.A. Times article says broad-scale use of biogas faces big barriers in the near term: “There’s no silver bullet. The technology isn’t quite there.”

It’s important to note Steve Gill’s mention of government and power company incentives. Undoubtedly these were factors in his company’s decision to make the heavy upfront financial investment necessary to design, build and install the biomass system. Government on every level, as well as private industry, should be working overtime to find ways to stimulate efforts by individuals, companies and institutions to reduce America’s dependence on the dirty-burning coal and petroleum fuels that are choking us. Plenty has been written about the gargantuan amounts of poisons that are spewing into our air and polluting our soil and groundwater. Enough said. The clock is ticking.  (come back tomorrow for Part 2)

This column was originally published on Truthdig.

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This biomass concept seems to be really innovative, and a great idea. I hope it receives the funding that it deserves

Written in August 2009

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