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Options for turning organic waste into energy

Options for turning organic waste into energy

Suzie Romig/For Steamboat Today
Alex King, an intern at Innovative Ag Colorado in Steamboat Springs, shows his build-your-own anaerobic digester at the most recent Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Talking Green education event. His eventual goal is to convert home food waste in the closed container to produce enough methane as an alternative and renewable power source for his existing backyard grill.
Courtesy YVSC

— An inquisitive crowd attended the recent Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Talking Green program on anaerobic digestion to learn how organic waste can be turned into energy and fuel using methods from do-it-yourself projects to industrial-scale equipment that could transform consumer waste at a large ski area.

The difference between household composting and anaerobic digestion is that the former relies on oxygen, while anaerobic digestion is a process where microorganisms break down biodegradable materials in the absence of oxygen.

Alex King, an intern at Innovative Ag Colorado in Steamboat Springs, displayed his build-your-own anaerobic digester made from a model found on the open resource website Solarcities.eu. King, a native of Steamboat Springs, said his eventual goal is to use home food waste that will basically ferment into fuel within his closed container to produce enough methane to replace some of the propane used to power his backyard grill.

“This is a great technique because it’s simple and is very accessible to anyone,” King said.

Mark Berkley, owner of Innovative Ag, purchased a family-scale anaerobic digester for about $1,000 from the company Homebiogas. The user-friendly product is shipped as a kit that turns into a 3-by-5-foot unit that converts organic waste into gas for cooking, or to power a small home generator for up to three hours. Other bi-products include liquid fertilizer and compost.

“There is a ton of potential; the possibilities are limitless,” Berkley said. “What is really cool is nobody can monopolize this fuel source … Using anaerobic digestion is completely open to anybody.”

Associate professor Sybil Sharvelle, who teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, spoke to the Talking Green audience via video call to explain the larger scale uses in the region for the renewable resource of biogas. The waste can include manure, plant material, yard waste, municipal sewage waste or food that all be turned into methane gas, compost and liquid fertilizer. The renewable biogas can be used to produce electricity or vehicle fuel, can power boilers for heat or can be purified to add to a natural gas supply line.

Sharvelle said biogas methane is a high-energy production fuel source that also creates less carbon dioxide emissions than production of other vehicles fuels such as diesel or gasoline. The process also keeps potent methane out of the atmosphere as methane contributes to ground level ozone and holds much more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

At New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, for example, a successful anaerobic digestion system turns liquid waste water into electricity. In Grand Junction, the waste methane that previously was flared and burned from an anaerobic digestion wastewater facility is now converted to biodiesel to fuel buses, trash trucks and other vehicles.

Talking Green speaker Brendan McCrann is the founder of Loveland-based Future Pointe, which has worked toward community scale solutions for food waste since 2009. McCrann said his team observed a big gap in progress in anaerobic technology in North America compared to overseas solutions.

Starting in 2016, Future Pointe partnered with a clean-tech manufacturing company in the United Kingdom to develop a modular and scalable solution using 20-foot to 40-foot shipping container anaerobic digesters. Those units can process between a half ton and 5 tons of material per day to generate on-site distributed power. The product line could be rolled out in the U.S. this summer.

Professor Sharvelle noted that in the cold winters in the mountain regions, anaerobic digestion does need to take place in a heated location as the process works best at approximate body temperature or at 97 degrees. With larger systems, however, some of the energy produced in anaerobic digestion can be used as heat for the unit.

She said conceptually, restaurant food waste and other organic waste could be collected in a co-op format in Routt County and converted to heat a large facility or to fuel fleet vehicles.

Find the video and slide presentation from this YVSC Talking Green evening under the Past Events section at http://www.yvsc.org/programs/talking-green.


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