President Obama has set an energy goal for the United States. In his recent State of the Union Address, he declared that, by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity is to come from clean energy sources. As part of his “Win the Future” plan, he mentioned a number of possible energy sources including wind, solar, nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. As far as we’re concerned, he missed a major source of renewable energy fuel – BIOSOLIDS. They’re not glamorous or “sexy” like wind or solar energy devices, but they are a valuable, constant, renewable energy source.
The United States Department of Agriculture supports the use of biosolids as fuel. On January 24, 2012, they released a modified version of their “Biorefinery Assistance Program,” part of their Rural Development Energy Programs. In the program guidelines, the USDA recognized biosolids as an “eligible feedstock” for projects that may be financed through this program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes on the USDA website that “a future where America runs on cleaner, homegrown fuels is a priority” for the USDA. In a press release on January 27, 2012, the Secretary in an address at Kansas City, MO, supported the President’s vision of American-made renewable energy sources by pledging to work with scientists, farmers and entrepreneurs to help create a nationwide biofuels economy – one which includes biosolids.
CNN quoted President Obama’s energy comments on January 26, 2012 from his visit to a UPS facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. He called his energy plan as “all-out, all-in, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.” We see this as more evidence that NOW is the perfect time to refine the development of biosolids as a fuel source. This is one of the best kept secrets in our arsenal of renewable fuels and that needs to change. The economic and environmental opportunities are huge. The biosolids sector has only just begun to tap the potential of this ubiquitous and never-ending resource as a source of fuel. One of the challenges will be educating the public about a new way to recycle this omnipresent commodity, and gaining their acceptance. Another is getting potential customers to take note of biosolids as fuel. However, this will be easier once energy assistance money is forthcoming to help in the development of this “new” energy source.
It’s not really a new idea, but it is a good idea. Dried, pelletized, Class A biosolids from wastewater treatment plants have been used as a renewable fuel source in the cement industry for (over 5 years) and companies such as Synagro are now promoting the use of biosolids pellets as fuel to other industries as well. Synagro’s fuel product contains about 6,000 to 7,000 BTU of heat energy per pound which is equivalent to low-to-medium BTU coal. Each ton of dried pellets contains the energy equivalent of 100 gallons of fuel oil. If the price of foreign oil continues to rise, the cost of using biosolids will become more competitive. Biosolids also have the potential to be a source of carbon credits for power generating facilities when used as an alternative to fossil fuels nationwide.
In Pennsylvania, the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) Act of 2004 requires electric distribution companies (EDCs) and electric generation suppliers (EGSs) to supply 18 percent of electricity using alternative energy resources by 2021. The electric power generators and distributors have already met the goals for 2021 for Tier II sources of alternative energy (which, by definition, includes biosolids) showing that it is relatively easy and economical for power generating facilities to utilize waste materials as a fuel. The proven economic feasibility of using waste materials as a resource leaves the door open for the increased use of biosolids as an alternative fuel source.
The biosolids sector is firmly behind this move. In December, 2011, the Water Environment Federation’s (WEF) Board of Trustees approved and released a revised position statement that calls for innovative and beneficial uses of biosolids. The statement encourages “a comprehensive approach to wastewater treatment and solids management that ensures the recycling and recovery of all associated resources including water, nutrients, organic matter and energy.” WEF Executive Director Jeff Eger stated that, “As a natural byproduct of wastewater treatment, WEF recognizes that biosolids is a renewable resource that is too valuable to waste given our growing needs for renewable energy and sustainability.” WEF believes that a “cultural move toward sustainability … is creating unprecedented opportunities for the wastewater and biosolids community to position biosolids as a valuable commodity.”
The use of biosolids as a renewable fuel source is not without its challenges. But what new energy process or idea is not? With motivation – both environmental and financial – we can meet these challenges, just as is being done today with wind and solar energy sources.
Biosolids are not something that most people think about in their day to day lives and they tend to get a bad rap in the press. And, like Cinderella, they may not be pretty or popular yet — but they may just be our next, best source of renewable energy. Let’s invite them to the Ball!