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How One Company is Turning Food Waste into ElectricityHow One Company is Turning Food Waste into Electricity

Megan Greenwalt

July 29, 2015

5 Min Read
How One Company is Turning Food Waste into Electricity

The waste-to-energy market is undergoing a resurgence.

The first ground-up large-scale WTE project in 20 years opened last month. It’s the largest such facility in the country.

But there are smaller scale developments occurring in that sector as well.

To that end, Blue Sphere Corp., an Israeli-based company active in the fields of organic waste to energy, began construction on its first two U.S. projects this year. It broke ground on a $19-million 3.2-MW waste-to-energy facility in Johnston, R.I. and on a $27-million, 5.2-MW facility in Charlotte, where it maintains its U.S. headquarters.

What’s different about Blue Sphere’s facilities from traditional WTE plants is that the facilities are fueled by organics waste and generate smaller amounts of electricity than most of the large incinerators that are burning bulk quantities of MSW.

Blue Sphere’s WTE facilities generate power in the form of methane, which is captured in Blue Sphere’s digesters and then burned to produce electricity that is sold to local utilities companies through long-term power purchase agreements. In N.C., the electricity will be sold to Duke Energy and in Rhode Island it will be sold to NG to provide power to local homes and businesses. It hopes to have both facilities in operation by the end of 2015.

In Rhode Island, Blue Sphere is developing the project with Orbit Energy, a Raleigh, N.C. based firm. Blue Sphere has made arrangements for the inclusion of two of Orbit’s high solid anaerobic digester units to work in parallel with the digesters of Austep S.p.A., the Project’s EPC contractor, subject to the fulfillment of certain conditions.

Waste360 sat down with Blue Sphere CEO Shlomi Palas to discuss the WTE sector and Blue Sphere’s plans.

Waste360: What is driving the renewed interest in WTE facilities?

 Shlomi Palas: Twenty years ago, the main players in the WTE market in the U.S. were the bigger companies that used incineration technology. They didn't develop new technology.  Also in that time, oil prices dropped and electricity prices were very low, so it wasn't profitable to build new WTE. 

Many projects also got strong opposition from the public, since the incineration technology had a bad reputation. On top of it, the U.S. government didn't help this industry like the European governments helped.

[Now], many municipalities have had to look closely and examine their issue with waste. Landfills were once afforded space in the undesired parts of a city. Today, that is not the case. Residential [housing] is competing for more of that space and now you have government officials looking for ways to reduce the amount of trash in landfills. One logical solution is WTE.

Waste360: What are some of the benefits of WTE?

Shlomi Palas: WTE curbs landfill usage and landfill expansions are greatly reduced.  WTE typically reduces waste volumes by 90 percent. By eliminating food into the landfills, fewer and smaller landfills are needed to process ash and this protects a valuable natural resource: land.

WTE offers new revenue for the community via tipping fees. The standard for regional landfills that are usually privately owned, compete with other landfills for waste and the tipping fees can be unpredictable. But with WTE, firms like ours can work contracts and set a fixed debt repayment structure. WTE facilities offer stable tipping fees for municipal food waste.

Waste360: How is Blue Sphere’s process different from others?

Shlomi Palas: Blue Sphere’s WTE facilities generate power in the form of methane, a greenhouse gas that is mostly emitted from decomposing waste in U.S. landfills. When methane gas spews from landfills, it is a dangerous contributor to climate change.  We now capture that methane in our digester and turn it from dangerous into a precious commodity: electricity.

What also makes Blue Sphere unique is its team. In order to complete the launch of a WTE facility you need people with multi-disciplinary skills: technical, engineering, strong business orientation, legal expertise, and creative financial thinking abilities and capabilities.

We believe we have this team. Our team has vast experience in project development from many countries around the world.  We have members in the team that have built projects in China, Africa, South America and the U.S. Our team has the ability to solve problems, make quick decisions and move forward fast and aggressively.

Waste360: Why does WTE get so much opposition?

Shlomi Palas: The main opposition comes from state governments. If the local governments, like in New England, will support WTE by banning food waste in landfills, then the rest is easy. We can educate and explain the advantages.

The overall issue is education. For example, in many countries in Europe, separating food waste at the source is a common practice because they understand the damage food waste causes to the environment and that food waste can equal energy. Your banana peel today is the energy of tomorrow. That mentality is now coming to America. 

Waste360: How do you respond to the opposition?

Shlomi Palas: WTE has many benefits. We take the organic waste and eliminate it. We are not creating a mountain of waste that will stay there for generations. We take the waste, digest it and turn it to electricity and compost, and nothing comes out.

Waste360: Any other roadblocks for WTE in the U.S.?

Shlomi Palas: The challenges are to change America’s view on WTE and it will take time. In a few short years, we hope the challenges are a thing of the past and there is better acceptance of WTE in the US. We hope to pioneer new way of thinking and term WTE as the next generation of landfills.

About the Author(s)

Megan Greenwalt

Freelance writer, Waste360

Megan Greenwalt is a freelance writer based in Youngstown, Ohio, covering collection & transfer and technology for Waste360. She also is the marketing and communications advisor for a property preservation company in Valley View, Ohio, and a member of the Public Relations Society of America. Prior to her current roles, Greenwalt served as the associate editor of Waste & Recycling News for three years and as features editor for a local newspaper in Warren, Ohio, for more than five years. Greenwalt is a 2002 graduate of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism.

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