Who would’ve thought that the source of a nearly endless supply of “green” energy would turn out to be brown?
But that’s exactly what will happen next year when a $1 million project at Fort Wayne’s sewage treatment plant applies an environmentally and economically sensible update to that old line about turning you-know-what into chicken soup by converting human waste into electricity.
“Maybe these plants should be called ‘energy recovery centers,’ ” City Utilities Director Matt Wirtz said as he sat in the water pollution control plant on Dwenger Avenue that by the end of 2015 should be home to two generators that will convert the methane produced by the decomposition of waste into enough electricity to power about 615 homes – or, in this case, enough to reduce the plant’s annual operating costs by at least $100,000.
Although the city’s federally mandated efforts to keep untreated waste out of its rivers has received the most attention – about $292 million will be spent over the next five years alone, to be repaid through higher sewage treatment fees – Wirtz said the methane represents a problem, too, because the plant currently has no choice but to burn off most of the gas, possibly running afoul of future federal regulations on so-called “greenhouse gases.”
But the methane clearly offers opportunities as well. The plant already uses some of the gas to provide heat for the building and treatment process, reducing the cost of natural gas by about $200,000 per year. But thanks to the generators, the plant will be able to accept, and convert into energy, increasing amounts of waste from such outside sources as farms, other municipal treatment plants, restaurants, septic system and other sources. Eventually, Wirtz said, four generators could be added.
“We want to take more waste. More flow means more (energy) production,” Wirtz said. And, potentially, even greater savings for city utilities.
Nor is electricity the only viable commodity. Project manager Zach Schortgen said the process can also produce compressed natural gas that could be used to power automobiles.
The possibilities, it seems, are almost as endless as the supply of waste. To maximize the potential, city officials say they want to talk to state utility regulators about making it easier to sell any excess power to utilities, such as Indiana & Michigan Power.
Fort Wayne has seldom initiated a trend, but it may be ahead of the curve where converting waste into electricity is concerned, according to Doug Fasick, City Utilities senior program manager.
In Indiana, only West Lafayette is believed to have done what Fort Wayne proposes, he said. In 2010 the city installed two generators that provide 15 percent of the power consumed by the plant. And late last year General Motors announced it would spend $11 million on equipment that would allow its Allen County truck plant to convert gas produced at a nearby landfill into electricity.
Quite frankly, “green” energy often sounds better than it is. The environmental benefits can be less than advertised, with the true cost hidden by federal subsidies. And waste-generated electricity, in fact, is likely to seem less expensive in the future because of the federal government’s insane war on coal that, unless modified, will cripple the economy with massive hikes in electric rates.
But none of that should obscure the wisdom and foresight of what Fort Wayne doing. Humans will always produce waste, but there is the very real possibility that dung will soon be turning into dough. The generators will pay for themselves in 10 years but are expected to operate for at least 30, and in the process will eliminate most of the need to burn excess methane.
What’s more, it’s good politics. Compared to what will be spent to comply with Environmental Protection Agency requirements, and the resulting increase in average residential sewer rates from $35.29 to $52.50 by 2019, an annual net savings of about $100,000 may not sound like much.
But it is something; something worthwhile for a variety of reasons. Maybe even enough to turn officials in supposedly more-enlightened towns green with envy.