Turning Waste into a Valuable Source of Energy
- quasar's processes and technologies turn waste into renewable energy and other beneficial byproducts.
- As of September 2011, quasar’s five active digester projects boast a combined electric capacity of 3.2 MW and the ability to process 142,000 wet tons of waste annually.
- quasar benefits from proximity to its suppliers in the state of Ohio, and hosts its laboratory and engineering facility at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
Organic Waste and the Benefits of Anaerobic Digestion
quasar energy group is a growing waste-to-energy company based in Cleveland, Ohio. The company builds and operates anaerobic digesters – huge tanks, in some cases capable of holding more than a million gallons of liquid, where microorganisms break down organic waste in the absence of oxygen. Over an approximately twenty-eight-day period, the organisms neutralize any harmful properties of the waste and convert it into fertilizer and biogas.
Perhaps because of its beginnings in waste, anaerobic digestion is an often overlooked gem in the advanced energy economy. The technology processes organic waste – manure, municipal wastewater, waste from ethanol production, and discarded food products – and converts it to energy and other reusable byproducts, such as fertilizer. The United States generates over one billion tons of organic waste annually1 - more than twice the combined weight of all people live on the planet.2 Released undigested, this waste can spread disease agents to nearby water or consume oxygen in local rivers and kill fish. While some organic waste can be used locally as fertilizer, much of it is sent to landfills or incinerated. In landfills it occupies much needed space and releases greenhouse gases.3 Incineration is also problematic – it pollutes and, if done incorrectly, emits harmful toxins.4 quasar’s digesters divert organic waste from landfills and incinerators by using it as an input to produce valuable outputs, namely methane and nutrient rich soil amendments. Methane from quasar’s digesters can power electric generation directly, or, if put through a purification process, meet national natural gas pipeline standards and be fed into the natural gas network.
Anaerobic digesters hold significant potential for the advanced energy economy. There were 162 anaerobic digesters operating on agricultural facilities in the United States at the end of 2010, generating enough electricity to power 25,000 homes.5 Meanwhile, quasar estimates that Ohio alone could benefit from as many as 6,000 anaerobic digesters. The company is rooting for industry growth. “We welcome competition,” said Vice President of Marketing Caroline Henry. “It will help spread the word of what anaerobic digesters can do.”
A Closer Look at quasar’s Projects
As of September 2011, quasar had five digesters operating in the United States; four in Ohio - Akron, Columbus, Wooster and Zanesville, and one in Rutland, Massachusetts. Cumulatively, the plants have an electric generating capacity of 3.2 MW and the ability to process 142,000 wet tons of waste annually.
Currently, quasar generates most of its revenue through the sale of electricity from methane-powered generators and tipping fees6 for processing waste. The company plans to sell its liquid byproduct for its fertilizer value. The ownership structure of the digester between quasar and its host varies case-to-case, but quasar always handles plant maintenance.
In the long run, the company plans to shift its revenue mix. “The primary goal is to make alternative motor vehicle fuel,” said Ms. Henry. “Right now we are producing electricity because of the state and federal incentives [for renewable power projects].” For quasar, one reason to move away from electricity is the difficulty of negotiating purchase rates with utilities. Another is the expense of purchasing and maintaining the power generating equipment.
quasar has its eye on the market for compressed natural gas (CNG) as a transportation fuel. Though still relatively small (there are about 13 million natural gas vehicles on the road worldwide and only 112,000 in the United States7), the industry has promise. Cost is one advantage – at May 2011 prices, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline from CNG would cost $1.20.8 Using CNG would also dramatically reduce local air pollution such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which are a cause of respiratory health problems, and carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. Despite the political and market uncertainty surrounding CNG, quasar plans to install CNG fueling stations at all of its digesters.
The Benefits of Ohio
quasar uses 99% American suppliers, more than 50% of which are in Ohio.9 Ms. Henry touted the benefits of local suppliers, “Parts can come the same day and we can work with our supply chain to make the components what we want them to be instead of off-the-shelf, which has given us a big advantage over other digester companies.” When a tornado damaged the membrane roof of quasar’s Wooster digester in September 2010, the company’s local supplier, Seaman Corporation’s Ohio operation, was able to complete a new roof for the digester three days later. Noted quasar President Mel Kurtz, “we learned that not only did we have to build a company, we had to build a U.S.-based industry.”10
quasar partners closely with The Ohio State University. The company moved its R&D facilities onto the campus in 2008 and began construction on a digester on the Wooster campus in 2009. “We would not be where we are today without the credibility [OSU] gave us,” said Ms. Henry.
quasar has also benefited from supportive state and Federal government partners, having been awarded grants, loans and loan guarantees to commercialize and demonstrate new technologies or build infrastructure around proven ones.11 While these incentives have helped to facilitate the development of the industry, the company states that its business model is viable without subsidies.
“There is no downside to this technology – we divert waste from landfills and incinerators, produce renewable energy, create jobs and invest in our local economy,” commented Ms. Henry. quasar believes that the future of this industry is alternative fuel. “CNG can be used to fuel semis, cars and heavy equipment while burning 60% cleaner than gasoline or diesel and costing less – that’s something to get excited about.”
Anaerobic Digestion in The Advanced Energy Economy
So how does anaerobic digestion stack up against other forms of energy generation? The EPA estimates that livestock farms alone could generate 13 million MWh of electricity per year in the United States, which would provide about 9% of the country’s non-hydroelectric renewable power generated in 2009.12 If the United States ran all 1 billion tons of organic waste generated per year through a digester with quasar’s average rate of electricity conversion, anaerobic digestion would generate around 215 million MWh per year, more than all non-hydro renewable electricity generation in 2009.13
quasar’s anaerobic digesters are one of many promising technologies that contribute to the transition to the advanced energy economy. They carry out the burdensome task of disposing of organic waste while capitalizing on the missed opportunity to create energy.
1. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, “National Program 206: Manure and Byproduct Utilization,” FY 2005 Annual Report, October 2008. (Note: the 1 billion ton figure accounts for human and animal waste, it does not include plant waste.)
2. Assume average human weight 150 lbs. and global population of 6.67 billion.
4. Dick van Steenis, “Incinerators – Weapons of Mass Destruction?” RIBA Conference, January 31, 2005.
5. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “U.S. Farm Anaerobic Digestion Systems: a 2010 Snapshot,” AgStar, June 2011, p. 1.
6. A “tipping fee” is the charge waste management facilities collect in exchange for managing a certain quantity of waste. In 2007, the national average tipping fee for waste-to-energy plants was $64.88 per ton [source: “The State of Garbage in America,” BioCycle, Vol. 49, No. 12, p. 22 (December 2008)].
8. Using the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) June 2011 commercial price of $9.44 per thousand cubic feet (MCF).
9. quasar has worked with Ohio’s Rockwell Automation to design its own parts and computer control system. See Rockwell Automation success story.
10. Diane Greer, “Organics Management Company Invests in Digesters,” BioCycle Energy, April 2011, p. 42.
11. Specifically: an $800,000 loan guarantee and $500,000 grant from the USDA in September 2009, a $3.06 million loan from the State of Ohio in December 2009, a $2 million grant from the Ohio Department of Development in December 2009, a $1 million grant from the USDA to manage waste running into Grand Lake St. Marys in August 2011.
12. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “U.S. Anaerobic Digester Status Report,” AgStar, October 2010, p. 2.
13. EIA, “Summary Statistics for the United States,” Electric Power Annual, April 2011.
14. The EIA gives the 2009 energy generation from non-hydro renewables as 144.3 million MWh.