Culling food at a supermarket
Culling food at a supermarket.

In 2014, the Patrick Administration will kick into high gear its plan to tap into the hidden energy value of food waste and organics. The goal is to divert 450,000 tons of food waste a year from landfills and incinerators, and direct that material to composting facilities or anaerobic digesters, which convert food waste into a biogas that can be used for heat and electricity. This plan, which has gained international recognition, will cut greenhouse gases, lower disposal costs and preserve scarce landfill space across Massachusetts.

One major way to achieve this goal is to add food waste and organics to the list of banned materials at landfills and incinerators. This ban, which will apply to large food waste generators, is poised to go into effect in late 2014, and it will send an unmistakable signal to private companies to invest in alternative facilities, such as digesters.

To help harness this untapped energy from organic waste, the Patrick Administration has also made $3 million in low-interest loans available to private companies building anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. The low-interest loans will be administered by BCD Capital through MassDEP's Recycling Loan Fund, with monies provided by the Department of Energy Resources (DOER).

DOER is also making $1 million available in grants for anaerobic digestion to public entities through MassDEP's Sustainable Materials Recovery Grant Program. MassDEP and DOER have awarded the first AD grant of $100,000 to the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency (MWRA) for its wastewater treatment plant at Deer Island. The MWRA currently digests sludge in 12 large chambers to help run the plant. A pilot project will introduce food waste into one of the chambers to determine the effects of co-digestion on operations and biogas production.

In the wake of receiving this grant, the MWRA has already selected a hauler, which will prepare and provide mixed commercial food waste feedstock to the MWRA for delivery via tanker trucks to the Deer Island facility during the pilot program. The pilot program, which will accept between 50 and 100 tons per day of commercial food waste, will use just one of the MWRA's 'egg' digesters that are a visible hallmark on the Winthrop shore. If successful they will expand it to their other digester units, so that the full-scale project could take several hundred tons per day.

Currently, the MWRA's schedule calls for beginning to accept this material for the pilot program in July 2014. The benefits will include increased gas (and therefore energy) generation, improved wastewater residuals management, and a cost-effective solution for businesses and institutions that are looking to divert food waste from disposal to comply with Massachusetts' proposed commercial food waste disposal ban.

UMass-Amherst, meanwhile, has spurred construction of an anaerobic digester at its facility's wastewater treatment plant. This plant could handle sludge from the treatment facility, but also take in food waste from the campus and nearby towns, and deliver clean, renewable energy back to campus. The university has completed the feasibility study and is now taking comments on the development study from the surrounding community and the university. Once those tasks have been received and reviewed, a request for proposals will follow.

In addition, feasibility studies have been done at two Massachusetts Department of Corrections facilities in Shirley and Norfolk. The Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) has issued a request for information for both of these facilities and seven responses so far have been received from developers interested in pursuing the construction of anaerobic digesters on this state-owned land. The issuance of a request for proposals is expected soon.  

Massachusetts wastewater treatment plants have been using AD since the 1940s to reduce solids that would otherwise go to landfills or incinerators. The process was initially seen as a way to reduce pathogens to make the solids safe for application to the land as a fertilizer. In addition to wastewater treatment plants, AD with combined heat and power has applications on farms, at industrial and food processing facilities, and at stand-alone organics recycling centers.

In the private sector, Jordan Dairy Farm in Rutland is a fifth-generation, family-owned and -operated farm with 300 milking cows. In 2010, Jordan Dairy joined four other Massachusetts farms to form AGreen Energy LLC, a partnership designed to enable the farms' transition to more sustainable manure management practices. All five farms plan to adopt anaerobic digestion technology with combined heat and power (CHP) conversion units to transform manure into renewable energy. Jordan Farms is also now accepting food waste into its digester and increasing the production of useable biogas.

Also, Pine Island Farm in Sheffield is a family-owned and -operated dairy farm in Berkshire County that sits on 1,300 acres of cropland and houses approximately 1,000 head of Holstein cattle. In November 2011, the farm started using the cow manure as feedstock for its new anaerobic digester with a CHP energy system. Today, the digester has electrical generation capacity of 225 kilowatts, and the farm's organics-to-energy conversion system generated more than 1.1 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable electricity in its first eight months of operation. The energy produced covers all of the farm's electricity use, helps heat its water, and runs the digester equipment. This still enables the farm to sell power back to the grid. For Pine Island Farm, AD technology has multiple benefits: it enables a more sustainable practice for manure management that also generates renewable power and it cuts greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Pine Island Farm uses the liquid digestate, which is a residue of the digestion process, for fertilizer and has reported large gains in crop productivity as a result.

AD with CHP is already being used widely in Europe for waste reduction, but increasingly, as a means of renewable energy production. Biogas production plays a significant role in the clean energy production in Europe. With the ability to turn organic waste into a gas that can be used to produce electricity and thermal energy (heat), anaerobic digestion is an increasingly important technology in the Commonwealth's renewable energy portfolio.

AD can also play an important role in diverting some of the organic waste disposed of in landfills across the Commonwealth, thereby reducing landfill methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and mitigating the need for landfill expansions. After decades of successful use – in Massachusetts, the United States and around the world – plus recent technical advances, there is growing interest in AD as an alternative to conventional power generation.

The Massachusetts plan has been hailed internationally. The Economist Magazine chose to highlight the Commonwealth's plan in its "The World in 2014" issue (http://www.economist.com/news/21589122-massachusetts-leading-way-recycling-organic-waste-waste-not-want-not). And the American Biogas Council (ABC) announced in November 2013 that MassDEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell is the recipient of its Champion Award. ABC stated: "The ABC bestows this award on public servants who, through their words as well as actions, promote public policies that enable biogas and anaerobic digestion to realize their potential as a major source of renewable energy in our society."

ABC Board of Directors Chairman Wayne Davis lauded Commissioner Kimmell in moving the Commonwealth forward with policies that are both consistent in environmentally beneficial ways and economically sound: "What I have learned over the past couple of years, is that this Commissioner is a guy who gets it.  He runs his Department in a way that encourages the staff not only to solicit public input on critical issues, but to shape policy and regulations that balance achievement of aggressive goals around environmental protection and sustainability with practical considerations of economic costs and burdens."

For more information about the food waste ban and anaerobic digestion program updates, go to:  http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/service/energy/anaerobic-digestion/ .