Anaerobic digestion (AD) technology is moving forward in the US, with just over 181 facilities processing municipal solid waste, according to the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF).
Among those capitalizing on this alternative food waste management system is quasar energy group. The company has 14 anaerobic digestion projects across several states. Its marketing approach is multipronged, with a main customer sell being it’s a cheaper way to manage waste streams while generating resources from them like electricity, CNG and fertilizers. Additionally, the energy company offers multiple product and service options.
Customers buy quasar’s AD technology or the company provides the service for them. They buy finished byproducts like electricity. Or they buy processed waste to make the end products themselves, says Alan Johnson, the renewable energy company’s vice president of project development.
Several distinct markets
quasar’s heaviest strategic focus is on a service model for wastewater treatment plants. But there’s a model for farmers looking to repurpose organic waste. And the company services commercial waste generators, a sector whose unused, rotting food rapidly accumulates while the federal government tightens regulations to better manage it. Already six states have their own policies requiring commercial food waste generators to recycle rather than landfill if there’s a facility nearby, according to Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council.
quasar’s commercial customer base is heavily concentrated in Cleveland and includes a casino, a food court, and the company handles the tonnage of wasted food generated at two major ball league stadiums: homes to the Indians and Browns.
Just last week quasar picked up about10 tons of discarded food at an Indians game.
“There were volunteers walking through the crowd picking up recyclables. What was happening under the stadium at the same time was the food waste was being hydro pulped [ground into slurry to be put in a storage tank]. We pick it up, take it to our Collinwood, Ohio digester to be converted over 25 days into renewable energy and liquid material that is converted to a fertilizer for farmers,” says Johnson.
Revenue is generated by taking the hydro pulp material to its digester. The company receives a modest tipping fee—cheaper than landfilling. And quasar capitalizes on the energy it creates from the waste and sells to Cleveland Public Power.
The Indians contract exemplifies how the model can be a win for multiple stakeholders, says Johnson.
“The Indians have a more sustainable, less expensive waste management system. Cleveland Public Power pays less than for the fossil fuel equivalent and can tell their environmentally conscious customers they are using renewable energy. Farmers apply the nutrient liquid to their farmland, which is less expensive than commercial fertilizer.”
Meanwhile, hospitals and colleges in the Cleveland area have expressed serious interest in the company’s technology. Its system and similar ones are catching on among commercial generators around the country, according to Johnson.
The first project for quasar, launched in 2009, was at Ohio University’s agricultural campus in Wooster. The work to push it through paid off.
“We were generating energy for the campus grid and offsetting their energy needs, which attracted attention from economic development, politicians and others who … started to go back to constituents and colleagues. Soon that digester was fielding phone calls. We had to hire someone to handle requests for tours,” says Johnson.
Historically, biogas systems, including AD, were built to reduce odor on farms or manage sludge water that treatment facilities pull out of sewage.
“Today, biogas systems are seen as solutions to a wide variety of rural and urban challenges, like reducing truck traffic from hauling manure, reducing odor and vermin from grocery and restaurant dumpsters … basic waste management … and generating non-stop renewable energy to reduce dependence on fossil energy,” says Serfass.
The electricity that Quasar generates has another benefit; it goes into a grid to power residential and commercial buildings within a mile or two of the plant. Alternatively to larger utilities distribution systems, it cuts carbon footprint by placing small amounts of generation closer to the consumer.
While the commercial food model is generating increasing interest, Johnson sees AD’s reach and potential impact going further, especially in the wastewater treatment niche, which is heavily dependent on electricity.
“If [treatment plants] would co-digest, not just their own waste but tell local areas, I can take your grease trap waste, food processing waste and expired beverages and co-digest with wastewater treatment plant sludge, they could take themselves off the grid altogether,” says Johnson.