Experts explore turning waste into energy

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan’s leaders in biomass waste-to-energy processes want to change people’s perceptions on trash, manure and other yucky products by exploring how to convert organic materials to energy.
On Dec. 7, entrepreneurs, researchers, companies and association leaders will explore technologies to turn organic matter to energy at the Michigan Waste to Biomass Energy Summit.
The conference, at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center, is sponsored by the Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth (DELEG).
Tania Howard, biomass energy program coordinator at DELEG, said one objective is to explore ways to divert biomass — meaning anything derived from a plant or animal — from landfills.
Representatives from American Process Inc. in Alpena, Swedish Biogas International in Flint and Heat Transfer International in Kentwood, will highlight their successes and challenges in the green energy industry.
Steve Safferman, a professor at MSU’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, will explain how biomass energy can turn waste disposal into an environmentally conscious, and possibly cost-effective, process.
Safferman said researchers aren’t able to tell yet how much biomass waste is in Michigan, but said most is at municipal waste treatment plants.
DELEG’s online geographic information system called the Michigan Biomass Inventory connects businesses and entrepreneurs with biomass waste sites and calculates the amount of energy that can be derived. Users can enter a location and the system will identify nearby waste sources and transportation costs.
Safferman said a follow-up inventory system will connect users with a database of all of Michigan’s biomass sites.
“The goal here is to encourage entrepreneurs to build a system different than in the past,” Safferman said, noting that technology could benefit companies near municipal treatment plants.
Anaerobic digestion is a pre-treatment process that makes it easy to separate water from solids. The result is a solid with fewer pathogens and a biogas that contains methane, which can be used for energy.
“Hopefully we can create some excitement about this technology, bring revenue and protect the environment, too,” he said.
Europe serves as a model for digester use, Safferman said, noting that there are 8,000 in Europe and about 150 in the United States, including several in Michigan at livestock farms in areas such as Overisel Township, Ionia, Elsie and Fennville.
Because of energy policies and startup costs, it may be a long time before digester use becomes widespread, he said.
“If you buy a digester, the payback period can be up to seven to nine years,” he said. “Protecting the environment is the main motivation for this technology.
“It’s hard to put a dollar price on that. Energy is the second objective.”
Digesters and other processes can reduce the runoff of pathogens, reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane and extract nutrients for fertilizer.
St. Ignace public works Director Les Therrian said burning trash is an alternative to landfills, but doesn’t make sense now for his city.
“Big cities might get into it if they don’t have a way to haul trash to land application sites. As plant operators, the big thing that runs everything is if it’s economical,” he said.
“Most people, when it comes to waste, don’t want to know what is happening with it,” Therrian said. “It’s an issue that people don’t understand. I think public education has to be improved in that aspect, and it could take a while.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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