Imagine a crazy concoction of inedible ice cream and other food waste, grease, fats, oils and sewer sludge powering homes and cars throughout Ohio. This is exactly what is happening thanks to the Cleveland-based Quasar Energy Group, which has been building anaerobic digesters that convert organic materials, such as crop residuals, grease, personal care products, biobased lubricants and municipal wastewater, into biogas. That biogas can be captured for use as electricity, natural gas and motor vehicle fuel. The process also creates effluent, which can be used as a rich soil conditioner, replacing chemical fertilizers.
“People think digesters are smelly and noisy, but they’re not,” said Mel Kurtz, Quasar’s president. “Digesters can process anything that’s organic and keep tons of waste out of landfills. It’s really exciting.”
From brownfield to greenfield
One of Quasar’s newer digesters is on the grounds of a former General Motors body plant in a largely vacant industrial area of Collinwood, a Cleveland neighborhood. At the facility, a truck slowly pulls up front and raises its bed so waste from a major food manufacturer can slide down a hose and into an underground tank.
The Collinwood project is a partnership between Quasar and Forest City Enterprises, a NYSE-listed real estate developer that wants to build more digesters on its properties throughout the United States. The Collinwood facility, which cost about $5.5 million, is the perfect fit for Pierre’s Ice Cream. Two years ago, the 81-year-old company moved into a new factory with equipment that can capture most of its food waste. Previously the waste would go down the drain or be sent to a landfill. Now, for a fee, Quasar picks up Pierre’s extra cream or leftover mix twice a month so it can be converted into energy.
“We have a wonderful relationship with Quasar,” said Shelley Roth, president and CEO of Pierre’s, which sells its products in parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. “We are excited about turning waste into energy. There are some expenses associated with waste disposal but we believe this is a meaningful solution to protecting the environment.”
Anaerobic digesters are not a new concept. Germany alone has 7,000 digesters. In comparison, the United States has about 400, including Quasar’s nine in Ohio and one in Massachusetts. The company plans to build 13 more by the end of this year and has about two dozen in the pipeline. One recently went online in central Ohio for Alex Ringler’s hog farm. The digester will help the family deal with manure storage challenges.
“The beautiful thing is that the digester eliminates 90 to 95 percent of odors from manure,” Ringler said. “Now that manure will never hit the light of day because it’ll be transferred underground through pipelines.”
Ohio State University researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster have worked with Quasar on technology that improves existing digesters. Its new integrated Anaerobic Digester (iAD) system can accept organic material with high solids content such as yard trimmings and crop residue, which aren’t suitable for existing anaerobic digesters. Current digesters can only process 14 percent of solids while iADs can process up to 35 percent of solids, Kurtz said.
This year Quasar plans to expand its Collinwood plant so it can accept both liquid and solid waste. Kurtz’s goal is to have a greenhouse built on an adjacent vacant lot that would be heated by Quasar at a fraction of the normal cost. Plant waste would go into quasar’s digesters, eliminating transportation costs and reducing the carbon footprint.
“We are no longer at the point of ‘does this technology work?’ It does and we need companies or people to take advantage of it,” Kurtz said.
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.
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