Bay State Banks on Organics to Produce Energy

By KAT FRIEDRICH/ecoRI News contributor

Massachusetts' organic waste ban promises many advantages — energy generation, compost production and reduced greenhouse gas emissions — but companies face challenges as they gear up to meet these requirements, which will be phased in starting in October.

The state will require any institution, business, college, hospital or other non-residential organization producing more than a ton of organic waste a week to divert these materials to be used as animal feed, composted or converted to energy. In this legislation, the term “organic” refers to food and yard waste rather than organic agriculture.

“We’re trying to use this as a catalyst to promote anaerobic digestion,” said Ani Krishnan, energy planner at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). Anaerobic digestion is an industrial process in which organic materials can be transformed into methane and compostable material. Methane is a gas that can be used in combined heat and power (CHP) systems to generate electricity and heat buildings.

Methane also is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities. In fact, pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide.

The state has grants of up to $400,000 available to go toward the design and construction of organics-to-energy projects, said Amy Barad, program director at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). The state also is supporting some organics-to-energy studies.

Massachusetts has earmarked $3 million in low-interest loans for privately owned anaerobic digestion facilities, according to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The Department of Environmental Protection’s Recycling Loan Fund will offer the loans. An additional $1 million in grants for public entities will be available through DEP’s Sustainable Materials Recovery Program.

However, since organics-to-energy plants take time to build and require permitting, it’s unlikely that any new facilities will be proposed and built between now and October. The state’s first anaerobic digester designed specifically for food scrap is under construction at the Crapo Hill Landfill in Dartmouth. It’s scheduled to begin operating in June.

Depending on the volume of waste that is generated and the amount that is composted, it’s unclear whether the supply of organics-to-energy facilities will be adequate in the near term, especially in the Boston area. The waste that isn’t converted to energy and can’t be reused as livestock feed will likely be composted.

Wastewater treatment plants are an ideal location for converting food scrap and yard waste to energy, because adding such material to sewage improves the performance of the systems. In the Boston area, the only site currently accepting organic waste and converting it to energy is the Deer Island sewage treatment plant, Krishnan said.

This facility can process 350 to 500 tons of organic waste weekly, Krishnan said. Therefore, at least initially, businesses and institutions in the Boston area may need to ship their organic refuse to sites outside the city, especially if there is a high demand for waste-to-energy conversion once the ban goes into effect.

“There are a lot of businesses which will need to find other ways to get rid of the organic material,” Krishnan said. Barad said there are some 1,700 business and institutions in the state that produce more than a ton of organic waste a week.

These places will need to retool their waste disposal methods to separate organic waste from other waste onsite, Barad said. She said managers should ask waste-hauling companies for advice about disposal destinations. Several organizations, including the Center for EcoTechnology and RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, can provide assistance.

Although MAPC and MassCEC held an information session about anaerobic digestion and plan to offer more events in the future, it’s clear that much more work remains to be done as businesses and institutions reorganize their approaches to handling organic waste.

“We’re finding out from our communities that they don’t really know whether they want to do a project; they want to know more about the technology,” Krishnan said. MAPC serves 101 communities in the Boston area.

Krishnan said the DEP has published a set of guidelines showing how much organic waste different sizes of institutions and businesses produce. Organizations can use these guidelines to estimate whether or not their facilities may be affected by the ban.

“Because of the complexity of these systems itself, the first kind of question people ask is, ‘What kind of facility can I build in this town where I am?’” Krishnan said.

If a facility is located at a wastewater treatment plant or farm, Krishnan said, the energy generated will most likely be used onsite and will not be sold back to the local utility. However, stand-alone anaerobic digestion/CHP facilities or facilities situated at landfills could sell energy back to the grid. Massachusetts has a net-metering policy that would allow utilities to purchase this power. However, in that case, utilities would need to be involved in discussions about the new facilities.

Managing the transition to this new way of disposing of food scrap and yard waste will not be easy, but the process may generate economic opportunities and save energy in Massachusetts. And keeping organic waste out of landfills will reduce the environmental impact.