Tapping Hidden Energy In Organic Waste

Kenneth Kimmell, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, shares insights on anaerobic digestion potential in an interview with the American Biogas Council.

Patrick Serfass and Nora Goldstein
BioCycle September 2013, Vol. 54, No. 9, p. 28
Kenneth L. Kimmell

BioCycle REFOR13 Keynote Speaker Kenneth L. Kimmell, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department
of Environmental Protection

Kenneth L. Kimmell was appointed in January 2011 as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Since his appointment, MassDEP has launched a clean energy program to focus on the permitting and siting of renewable energy facilities, such as anaerobic digesters. The Department also is getting set to enact a ban on disposal of commercial organics. The American Biogas Council (ABC), along with BioCycle, interviewed Commissioner Kimmell about the current and future opportunities for renewable energy from organics recycling in Massachusetts.

ABC: In October, at the BioCycle 13th Annual Conference on Renewable Energy From Organics Recycling (REFOR13), you’re planning to speak about the “Hidden Energy Value of Organic Waste.” Why is this topic important to you?

BioCycle REFOR13KIMMELL: A number of different drivers are behind Massachusetts’ effort to tap into the hidden value of organic waste. First, as a state that has always pushed for the highest recycling and reuse of materials, we have found in recent years that those rates have plateaued. Therefore, the first driver is looking for new ways to beneficially use materials in the waste stream. Second, landfill capacity is shrinking in Massachusetts, and there is a lack of enthusiasm by communities to either expand or site new landfills. As this capacity dwindles, more of the waste generated in Massachusetts is being exported out of state for disposal, and this is not a good economic or environmental strategy. Third are the climate change aspects. We don’t believe throwing food waste into the landfill where it releases methane is good carbon policy. Finally, Governor Deval Patrick has been a champion of clean renewable energy. Solar and wind energy have increased dramatically in Massachusetts since he took office in 2007. For a state that is at the end of the pipeline for gas and other fuels, having energy independence is very good for the local economy.

Electricity generated from food waste through anaerobic digestion (AD) addresses all of those problems: It increases the state’s recycling rate, addresses dwindling landfill capacity, decreases its carbon footprint, and provides another arrow in the quiver of renewable energy in Massachusetts.

ABC: The MassDEP just revised the rules for organics in Massachusetts to make sure they go to facilities that can better utilize their value. Can you briefly describe what steps have been taken recently and what’s coming next?

KIMMELL: We put a comprehensive package of reforms into place to better manage organic waste. Here’s a quick summary of actions taken:

1) MassDEP streamlined its regulations to provide a clear and predictable permitting pathway for AD and composting facilities. We achieved that with rules that went into effect in November 2012, which make it clear who does the permitting and what the performance standards are.

2) MassDEP and the Division of Capital Asset Management searched for sites on state land for developers to build digester facilities. We want some early wins, to show that AD can be done well without causing odors or other nuisances, and believe that we can get these wins at sites that are well managed, and in which the state leads by example by providing food waste generated by state facilities, and receiving electricity in return. At this time, we’ve narrowed our selection down to three sites and will be issuing a request for proposals this fall for vendors to build AD facilities on these sites.

3) The legislature amended Massachusetts’ energy law to give electricity generated from AD the same financial incentives as solar and wind.

4) We’ve set up a variety of technical assistance programs to help communities that want to collect food waste, and businesses that want to develop AD projects.

5) This summer, MassDEP announced — in draft form — a ban on direct disposal of food waste in landfills or incinerators. This applies to entities that dispose of one ton or more per week of food waste, such as supermarkets, universities, hotels, hospitals and other larger-scale generators. The proposed ban is scheduled to go into effect in July 2014. The ban provides assurance to the AD industry that feedstock will be available, which helps in project financing.

ABC: What is the estimated number of generators in Massachusetts that fall into the greater than one ton/week of food waste category?

KIMMELL: About 1,700 entities are subject to it, but MassDEP believes many of those are in compliance already. So it doesn’t mean 1,700 generators will have to come into compliance as some already are.

ABC: Once the commercial organics disposal ban has been enacted, will the state send organics generated at state-owned facilities to AD or composting facilities?

KIMMELL: Certainly, to the extent that state facilities are disposing of more than one ton/week, these regulations apply to state facilities as well. And for those disposing of less than one ton/week, we are encouraging them to lead by example and divert food waste from disposal. We believe that food waste generators, including state facilities, will save money because sending that waste to an AD facility will be less expensive than sending it to a landfill or incinerator.

ABC: What is your assessment of the current processing capacity in Massachusetts to handle the commercial organics that will be diverted because of the disposal ban? If there is not adequate capacity in your estimation, how will the diverted organics be managed until that capacity is created?

KIMMELL: There is a fair amount of composting capacity that is not being fully utilized right now. So we expect the first thing that will happen when the ban goes into effect next July is some of those composting facilities will be more highly utilized than they are now. But we also anticipate that as compliance rates increase, there will be a need for additional capacity. A number of projects are in the MassDEP permitting pipeline for AD. We expect that with permit streamlining enacted, these facilities will go online in the latter part of 2014 and 2015 to handle a large portion of the organics subject to the ban. After large food waste generators have increased their food waste diversion, MassDEP will also develop strategies for increasing food waste diversion from smaller sources, which could include a broader ban at some point in the future.

ABC: Does Massachusetts have a hierarchy of technologies to utilize the hidden energy in organic waste? Clearly, given the available composting capacity, that will be used first, but once that’s utilized, is there a hierarchy for the different options for processing organics?

KIMMELL: We will allow the market to make that choice, and are not dictating where the food waste goes. But MassDEP does think facilities that generate energy from the food waste are ultimately providing a higher level of benefit, which is part of the reason why we have legislative incentives for electricity. We set a goal of generating 50 MW of electricity from anaerobic digestion by 2020, and we expect that food waste feedstocks are key to achieving the goal.

ABC: Parity for biogas and biogas-generated electricity compared to other renewables is critical for biogas to compete on a level playing field. Do you know where Massachusetts stands compared to other states with regard to financial parity between biogas, solar and wind?

KIMMELL: I am not familiar with what other states provide in terms of financial incentives. In the context of wind and solar energy, three policies that have been important to growing those industries in Massachusetts are net-metering, long-term contracts with renewable energy generators and Renewable Energy Credits. Electricity generated from AD now receives those same incentives, and we expect that these incentives will similarly help the AD industry see the kind of dramatic growth that we have seen for solar and wind in recent years.

ABC: With regard to end products from biogas systems, does Massachusetts plan to create any programs to use compost and digestate generated from processing organics for public works projects?

KIMMELL: For AD facilities sited on state land, one benefit is the end product can be used for those purposes. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is already leading by example and using compost. That will continue. We believe, through public education, those efforts will expand and be built upon.

ABC: A common challenge with disposal bans is identifying where, in the logistics chain, the government should focus its resources to ensure compliance. The waste haulers prefer not to be the “enforcers” of their customers, and would like the state to focus on generators directly. How does MassDEP anticipate approaching this issue?

KIMMELL: I’d start by saying that I am very hopeful there will not be a big enforcement challenge with the commercial organics ban because economics will make it work voluntarily. For example, grocery stores already are diverting food waste to farms and other places because it is cheaper than landfilling and incineration. With the advent of additional AD capacity, we have every reason to think the market will make it a financial benefit to comply without significant enforcement. With respect to the roles of generators and haulers relative to waste bans — and this is not just the commercial organics ban — we are very interested in getting compliance at the generator level. But haulers also have a critical role to play in achieving waste ban compliance. It is impossible to do this without haulers being part of the picture.

That said, MassDEP has a significant outreach and education task on our hands. We are working with associations, e.g., the restaurant associations, which are helping to set up systems to divert food waste. Our emphasis is going to be on generators but again, we are very hopeful that as people start to understand it saves them money, they will be inclined to participate without significant enforcement. MassDEP also now has the RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts program, which provides assistance to businesses and institutions, to support implementation of the commercial organics ban.

ABC: This isn’t the first time Massachusetts has banned disposal of materials in the solid waste stream. What key lessons has MassDEP learned from implementing its other disposal bans (e.g., C&D debris) that are guiding roll out of the commercial organics ban?

KIMMELL: Early and persistent education and outreach are absolutely keys to successful waste bans. Another is making sure that there is adequate capacity so material has a place to go. That is why MassDEP has been very carefully phasing in waste bans so supply and demand is in sync. Staffing also is very important at MassDEP. We lost people to budget cuts and had to cut back on enforcement; that has not been good. We are determined not to repeat that mistake. With the organics ban in particular, we are working hard to have the best education and outreach programs of any bans implemented to date. This roll out will be our most extensive in that regard.

ABC: As you are aware, Connecticut and Vermont passed legislation that will require a lot of their organic waste go to facilities that can extract the full energy and nutrient value of organics. What’s your view of how Massachusetts fits into this pattern and the leadership and momentum building in New England to make sure the value of organics is fully realized?

KIMMELL: We didn’t plot strategy together; all of us made decisions independently that would be in the best environmental and economic interests of our states. But we talk regularly with our counterparts in those states. And since food waste can cross borders, for example, some from Massachusetts may go to Vermont, some from Vermont or Connecticut may come to Massachusetts and so forth, having two adjacent states moving in the same direction strengthens what we are all trying to do. We see New England leading the way on this, and are pleased to be in proud company with Connecticut and Vermont.

ABC: Do you see state plans for diverting organics continuing to spread to other adjacent states in New England, or do you expect it will be a more scattered evolution?

KIMMELL: I think it will spread. It makes good economic sense in New England as our states have high disposal tipping fees and high electricity rates. That may be part of the reason why we are seeing these policies adopted in New England states, but I suspect many of these factors will be in play in other states as well.

ABC: What advice would you give your peers in other states considering adoption of policies to tap the hidden energy in organic waste?

KIMMELL: In Massachusetts, I think the reason why we have made this progress is that Governor Patrick, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rick Sullivan, MassDEP and other agencies looked at this problem very comprehensively. Siting issues are very real and we have tackled them. We looked at financial incentives, knowing that this is a nascent industry, and investors will need confidence building measures, such as the waste bans. And we recognized the importance of getting facilities built so people can see they work, which is why we intend to install AD facilities on state land. Finally, we know that we need to build grass roots support for this transformation, and we have been hard at work with many partners.

ABC: In closing, what are the prospects for the anaerobic digestion industry in Massachusetts?

KIMMELL: For the last seven years, Governor Patrick and his team have been leading the nation on clean energy policies that are not only good for the environment, but are good for the economy. Our state has seen explosive job growth in energy efficiency, as well as solar and wind energy. We view AD as the next big industry that will take off in Massachusetts, and we urge companies to look at the environment for growth that we have created here.

Patrick Serfass is Executive Director of the American Biogas Council, based in Washington, D.C. (www.americanbiogascouncil.org). Nora Goldstein, Editor of BioCycle, is a member of ABC’s Board of Directors.

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