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Cleveland's quasar turns a whole city's waste into energy

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/08/14 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Clean energy, Recycle

quasar energy group has grown from a novelty—taking waste ice cream from Pierre's at its Collinwood facility—into an operation that converts the entire City of Wooster's wastewater into electricity, natural gas to run vehicles and a business model that will someday challenge the status quo.

<br />Tim Murphy at quasar's French Creek Wastewater Treatment facility<br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
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Cleveland-based quasar energy group is redefining the idea of waste. When the company launched in 2006, it captured the popular imagination with a simple message. It would take spoiled Pierre’s ice cream at its Collinwood facility and somehow turn that and other food waste into energy. Eight years later, the company’s portfolio has grown from 3 to 125 employees operating 13 facilities across Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.

On the surface, quasar has taken a very simple idea and scaled it into an operation capable of converting an entire city’s wastewater into power. In the past 12 months, quasar produced enough power to run 9,000 homes. To put that number into context, the wind farm being proposed for Lake Erie has a target number of running 10,000 homes.

How does it work? And could this represent a greener alternative to fracking?

“It’s like a giant stomach,” Tim Murphy explains. Murphy and his son Drew operate the quasar facility at the French Creek Wastewater Treatment facility in Sheffield Village, Ohio. After being buzzed in at the facility’s gate, a driveway leads you past the lowslung brick treatment plant to the quasar operation which looks like two farm silos.

Inside the handling plant, the Murphys are stationed at a flat-screen display showing what’s going on inside the purple-dome silos. On the screen is a flow chart, the kind you see on a Prius dashboard only much larger.

One skinny silo is for holding the solids that come out of the wastewater facility after they are scrubbed of pathogens. Drew sprays the solids down a chute with a power washer where it will be mixed with liquid wastes. The liquids arrive in giant, industrial containers—today, it is fryer grease from McDonalds and vegetable-based grease that keeps the rollers running smoothly in the steel mills in the Cleveland Flats. The thing about the biodigester is it can take almost any natural waste product.

The big silo is where the action happens, Murphy says. Like a giant composter, materials are fed into it and are slowly mixed with a steel rotor. As it decomposes, natural gas floats to the top and is captured and siphoned off as fuel to run a 16-cylinder engine. At one point, a back-up generator for a hospital, this red behemoth produces electric power—10% runs the quasar plant and the rest is fed back to the water treatment facility which is the end point of all the toilets in the city of North Ridgeville. Before quasar pitched them on this $3 million, 1-megawatt facility, the city was paying to landfill tons of solid waste.

quasar's niche is with wastewater treatment plants and agricultural facilities. What they offer is a way to offset costs from solid waste disposal, and a reliable, on-site, renewable source of power. While the company doesn't divert all of the solid waste, it currently has the capacity to manage 700,000 tons of organic waste material annually.

quasar presumably offers competitive rates on the power as well. However, the longer quasar produces less power than one coal-burning power plant, the more likely the company will continue to fly below the radar in the power sector. That hasn’t hindered its growth or ability to scale up handling municipal solid waste, evidenced by deals to build facilities for the city of Akron and the city of Columbus, the company’s largest contract to date. Mel Kurtz, whose family owns Kurtz Bros., a provider of landscape supplies and composting services that operates in the Cleveland and Columbus markets, is the president of quasar. Kurtz Bros. has a minority interest in the facility and they initiated the long-term biomass contracts with Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) and the City of Columbus.

The Columbus facility produces 1MW of electricity, which quasar sells back onto the utility grid, as well as 1,600 gallons of gasoline (equivalent) per day of compressed natural gas.

When the city of Wooster was faced with a costly upgrade of its FDR-era wastewater plant, quasar won the bid. The company retrofit three existing waste collectors as digesters and tied it directly into the facility.

By way of explaining the benefits of a closed-loop system at Wooster, Murphy points to a semi truck filled with a black soil. It pulls up brimming with treated human waste from a wastewater treatment facility in Bedford, which, like Cleveland’s Southerly plant, has a contract with quasar. Dumped on the tarmac, it is smellier and messier than Wooster where all of this happens underground. The Wooster treatment plant uses 600kW of the electricity produced by the digester and 500kW is put back on the utility grid.

“It’s the most natural process,” adds Murphy. “And, when the grid goes down, we’re still up.”

Without a digester, solids are either trucked to a landfill or are used as fertilizer by farmers. In a landfill, waste produces a greenhouse gas (methane) which is 25 times more potent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

“We prefer not to think of our systems as reducing waste, but as recycling resources,” says quasar VP of Marketing Caroline Henry. “For centuries Americans have disposed of waste in landfills and via incineration—essentially discarding high energy, nutrient rich resources because we couldn’t see the potential to reclaim their value.”

Most of quasar’s facilities produce electricity, but some produce both electric power and natural gas. Biogas to CNG fuel is the most efficient, Henry says, at 90% conversion rate.

It made the business case for quasar to convert its entire fleet of trucks to run on CNG. quasar can then offer clients—like the Cleveland Browns and The Cavs—bragging rights of waste-to-CNG-powered trucks to move and convert their food waste. The sports franchises recently invested in a new InSinkErator Grind2Energy system which grinds food waste during games into a slurry which can be transported more efficiently in tankers. (And in true Mad Max style, the company inked a deal with General Motors to supply the fuel for the new, bi-fuel Chevy Impala released this year).

In 2010, 162 anaerobic digesters generated 453 million kWh of energy in the United States in agricultural operations—enough to power 25,000 average-sized homes, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The U.S. lags far behind Germany which leads all other nations with 6,800 digesters in operation.

“We wanted to affect real change,” Henry says, “to bring anaerobic digestion over from Europe and completely reengineer the systems to address the US opportunity – resource recovery. But to sustainably affect change, the solution must be affordable and competitive.”

quasar is out to prove that it is possible to grow on a business model where even state incentives have disappeared. quasar’s 90 jobs are a snapshot of the 13,000 renewable energy jobs created in Ohio from 2006 to the present when the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard made it more profitable to operate.

Murphy, turning to his son, wraps it up succinctly. “This is the future.”

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