Bio-what? Organic Waste Can Provide Clean Energy

August 5, 2014 | 4:22 pm
Ken Kimmell
Former contributor

Before I became president of UCS, I served as Massachusetts’ environmental commissioner, and I pushed hard to turn an environmental problem (food waste) into a clean energy solution (biogas). It is great to see that the federal government has signed on to this idea.

Trash and waste, turned to energy

In Massachusetts, and elsewhere, food waste makes up about a quarter of household garbage. Most of the time, it gets discarded in landfills where it rots and emits methane—a heat- trapping gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

We found a better way in Massachusetts: build anaerobic digesters. Digesters are enclosed operations that use microorganisms to break down organic waste into 1) a biogas that can be used for heat, electricity, or even fuel for vehicles, and 2) a solid that can be used for fertilizer.

These digesters, built for sewage sludge, may soon get large quantities of food waste from greater Boston. The food waste will be converted to heat and energy, lowering waste disposal costs for taxpayers and sewer costs for ratepayers, and cutting harmful methane emissions. Photo: Penn State

We pushed this promising idea with a law to give this form of energy the same financial incentives as wind and solar energy. We also issued a first-in-the-nation regulation, effective this fall, which bans landfills and incinerators from taking in food waste from large-scale operations such as supermarkets, universities and hotels. This “waste ban” will encourage capital investment in digesters to handle the food waste that won’t go to landfills and incinerators.

I am happy to see this idea is catching on. UCS has been pushing it too, and last week the Obama Administration issued a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap to expand the production of biogas from anaerobic digesters. The roadmap shows that this technology is not only beneficial for food waste but can be used to handle manure, sewage sludge, and other organic materials. So it can help not only states such as Massachusetts that face landfill space constraints, but also farmers needing low-cost energy, and cities that pay high sewage sludge disposal costs.

Nationwide benefits

There is a major environmental benefit to the expansion of biogas systems: they could generate enough electricity for more than 3 million American homes and cut methane emissions dramatically. The EPA estimates that a fully developed biogas industry could reduce methane emissions by equivalent of taking between 800,000 and 11 million cars off the road (an unusually large range, I acknowledge).

The roadmap does not go nearly as far as Massachusetts’ cutting-edge plan, but it does call upon three federal agencies to work together to provide financial assistance, strengthen markets, and conduct research, education and outreach to jump start this promising new industry. This is a welcome new arrow in the quiver of President Obama’s climate action plan, and it deserves widespread public support. And if the Obama administration decides to bolster the plan down the line, it can look to Massachusetts as a model.