A designer solution providing an environmentally responsible outlet for your industry's waste. Peter Ettinger of Bioenergy DevCo explains how an anaerobic digester plant tailored to specific waste streams can produce biogas and soil improvers - and pay for itself.
Welcome once again to the Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day and it’s Friday 22nd May.
I’m talking again about clean energy, and shortly I’ll introduce Peter Ettinger from the Bioenergy Development Company. There is still so much going on that I’m in a quandary. I know the length of the Sustainable Futures Report varies from episode to episode but I do try and keep it below 30 minutes because I want to keep your attention. Today’s interview will account for most of that, so what about the rest of the news? And I’ve already published one interview this week. I’ve decided that I’ll have a general news round-up early next week and then another expert interview is scheduled for Friday 29th.
I’ve heard that some people are bored with nothing to do during lockdown. I wonder what that’s like.
And so to this week’s expert.
The Sustainable Futures Report Podcast
Interview with Peter Ettinger, Bioenergy DevCo. on May 15, 2020
Anthony Day (AD): Well, today, I'm talking to Peter Ettinger, who is Chief development officer of Bioenergy DevCo. – that's BDC – based in Columbia, Maryland in the United States. Now Peter, welcome.
Peter Ettinger (PE): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
AD: All right, Peter, we've been talking on The Sustainable Futures Report about clean energy for some time – most recently about nuclear fusion, which is a technology some years off. But today you're going to talk to us about anaerobic digestion, which is very much with us today. Can you just start off by explaining to us or reminding us what anaerobic digestion is?
PE: Sure. It's really a good question. And the best way to think about it is we're a cow on an industrialized scale. If you think about it, a cow does a couple of things. You know, cow eats grass, a cow actually then creates gas. The difference here is that it's all through a four-chamber stomach, nothing goes out to the exposed air but the cow, in creating gas. The difference for an anaerobic digester is, in fact, we collect that gas. We own that gas. We manage that gas. A cow also does something else. It creates manure. Well, what we do with that manure in the anaerobic digestion process is we create a high organic soil amendment. So, instead of using an oil-based fertilizer or some pesticides, you can directly land apply this product to ensure healthy soils. So, if you think about it, anaerobic digestion is a great example of the circular economy at work. We take stuff that was in the ground – fresh fruits, organics, meats, other byproducts – and we go all the way through the cycle without odors or anything being exposed to air – materials being exposed to air. And then we start the whole process over again.
AD: OK, ok. So, you have two outputs, you have gas – tell me in a minute a bit more about the gas – and then the residues, which is leftover can be used as a fertilizer.
PE: Yes, absolutely. We call it a soil amendment because, by nature, fertilizers have other things associated with it. But here in the States, for example, OMRI is an organization that certifies organic qualities. So, the materials that we work through are digested through the heating process. It essentially takes out all the bad stuff. So, it meets what they call PFRP standards when at the end of that process, it's known as an EPA – our Environmental Protection Agency – Certification for classic compost. So, that material can be put on a field. It can be used in schools, in the horticulture work or just general horticulture by consumers. It can be used in certain stormwater management. It has a variety of uses directly applied to the land. So, in this country and throughout the world, the concept of the healthy soil movement is really taking shape. And we just serve it an integral part of that process. I can certainly talk to you about. Sorry, my phone is beeping like crazy now.
AD: That's what it is.
PE: Oh, I can certainly talk to you about the gas side of things as well –
AD: Before we get onto that, just tell me a bit more about the raw materials that you're working with and how should you be sure that they are completely clean? I mean, you know, heavy metals or other contaminants in them.
PE: So, I'll take even a half step backwards. If you don't mind. I'd give you a bit of history about our company. We're 22 years old. We've been doing this for a long period of time. So, one of the things we know better than anybody in our technology company is called BTS Biogas. So, it's an Italian based company who's built 220 anaerobic digesters throughout the world. They range from very small to very… call it industrialized scale. More than three hundred thousand MMBtus of renewable natural gas. Our experience in in building these facilities is very much focused on feedstock and analyzing feedstocks, looking at feedstocks, making sure their purity, understanding its contents. So, for example, we take anything in the organic world. So, think of it – fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-consumer processed materials. The kind of work that we do with our clients – such as Coastal Sun Belt or a Demonte – is we work within that process. We know how it's clean. We know what materials are being used. We know the processing side of that. And we consistently test those materials to ensure there are no heavy metals, that there isn't anything associated with the better part of the protection and that. And then I would say the other thing we do better than any is this concept of co-digestion. Typically, co-digestion means taking a variety of products, mixing them appropriately, using the right kind of microbial agents inside of that process to ensure gas performance and better healthy digesting. So, it takes a lot. We call it, “how do we make a great soup?” Easy to throw stuff in a crockpot, you know, might not taste so bad. But to be a chef, truly a chef, you have to understand the spices. You have to. And in our case, you have to understand what microbes work, to what degree and how do you manage that product? We have a major I think actually the only laboratory in the world dedicated to anaerobic digestion in this microbial mix. We're going to try to replicate that and bring it to the states. But right now, that lab has 20,000 thousand plus inputs of materials here and basically can tell you… if I take a little bit of poultry waste and I combine that with fats, oils and greases, I know that this is the right mix, very similar to what you we as humans do when we take probiotics. There’re thousands of strains of a probiotics. But the right one is hard to define and develop.
AD: Okay. Right. So, as I understand it then your business is actually creating bespoke digesters and constructing them for your particular clients’ requirements. Now, this is a technology which is widely available. What makes your company different? I mean, is it. You mentioned on the website artificial intelligence. Is that something which locks you out to a couple of things?
PE: We have a couple of versions of what we do now and how we do it. So, we might work for a major municipality, for example. So, the issues associated with waste are clear cut. Organics do nothing for landfills other than create greenhouse gases. Organics do nothing in the world of incineration. Other than being a wet wait. Municipalities are now looking at innovative ways to deal with waste, because the cost of actually opening up a new landfill is hundreds of millions of dollars. Environmental justice issues. Obvious ones are not really allowing new incineration. So, we work with municipalities and we say, look, we have a better way. We are, in essence, a sustainable landfill. And we can take those organics, create more room in your landfills so you can use materials, you know, package materials, other materials that you can actually sell and gain revenue from. And then the same time, we can then go manage this product, creating an environment and call it an economic development asset for your city. Same time, second kind of project we work with is this bespoke model. So, a major poultry facility, for example, who has a consistent amount of waste, has controversy around landfills, controversy around land application. We can actually take that waste work on their facility, not only manage it at a constant cost. So, the margins don't flip all times for them, but also provide them with energy is as well. So, in that in that model, what makes us different is one is history. You know, we've done this over the past 20 some idea process, our understanding of the microbial process, understanding what mixes together to make a plant performance. A result about doing that is we actually ensure and guarantee the performance of the plant. So, of one of the hundred and fifty we actually operate, I can look to you and say, I know you will get two hundred seventy-five thousand MMBtus every day, every year. I mean, so we can ensure that as well. And then I would say the telemetry side of what we do. You know, I'll go to technology, the older digesters and many other people, when small ones and farms have no way to communicate not only internally to define the activity of the microbes, but also no way to communicate with the folks who are operating the facility. We've added this, the sense of technology, this sense of sensors, telemetry so that at a moment's notice you could be looking at your phone today and be able to tell me, you know, the digester in Jessup, Maryland looks like it's going to foam. You know, you need to be looking at this and understanding. You know, you need a counterbalance next to it. So very, very, very important for us to see that on a proactive basis versus simply a reactive basis.
AD: OK. Now, you clearly are installing this technology across the United States. Are you doing this in other parts of the world? Are you licensing the technology, or do you have a global outlook?
PE: Oh, absolutely. We're very, very much so. You know, I think I mentioned that our BTS Biogas company has built 220 of these digesters as far away as Japan, a number in England, a number we own, the largest market share in Italy. We're building in France; we’ve built in South America. Really, I'm leading the U.S. invasion here, along with Sean Kreloff, our CEO, to take this readily adaptable and very valuable technology from Europe and introducing it to the United States in a new, improved view of how do you manage typically organic waste creating these kind of renewable and sustainable products. So, we're doing great in Europe. We continue to do great in Europe. We're building, in fact, hiring throughout that part of the world. But we want to take this European success and basically bring it to the United States.
AD: OK, just tell me a bit more about the gas. Tell me exactly what the gas is, methane or what?
PE: Yes, absolutely. It is. So, we…. We do. Woops, I'm sorry. Know what I what I did there? Well, I can still see I hear you. OK, that's perfect. You know, I apologize. Then the methane itself. So, we create a biogas, a brown gas, which is around 50, 60 percent methane. So, our abilities here, what we do with that is we scrub that gas, we manage that that product, and then we actually have an opportunity to work with a larger utility or with a larger energy company. So, think of it as a regulated utility here in the U.S., Chesapeake utilities, a Con Edison. And by managing that gas, cleaning that gas either through a water, a membrane process, we actually have a product that can be directly injected so that our typical plant that takes in a hundred thousand tons of a hundred thousand tons of organic waste. Well, in fact, actually produce somewhere in the tune of 275,000 to 300000 MMBtus per year. So, that as transition from brown gas or call it raw gas to an actual RNG product. And that is even us through the grid. It can be compressed and become renewed, compressed natural gas. Or in fact, we're in early discussions here to transition that to hydrogen as well. So, think of it. Sustainability in a broad scale.
AD: Yeah, well, that's what's really interesting because there are a lot of advantages to hydrogen. There are also problems with hydrogen, as far as I can see as well. But OK, so you’re using this gas as far as industrial processes. You've got that. Oh, no, I'm here. Oh, that's just the pictures change. I can see you now. I'm sorry. What was I saying? Yeah, the use for the gases. You were saying that it can go into the grid. So, it sounds as though some of your plants are pretty large to justify connection to the grid because presumably it might in some cases be quite some way away from the grid. You link with the pipeline, or you tanker it out, or what do you do?
PE: Couple of things. And that's a great, great question. And it really is around the type of plant we're creating. So, for example, in a municipality, our plant in Jessup, Maryland sits on five acres of land, sits in the center of a food and food distribution hub. There were about 11 hundred feet from a from an interconnection point. And we deliberately picked that land. That plot of land, not only because of its waste and its access to roadways, but because we're next to a grid, a grid connection. We then are able to then talk to our various clients and their end goal uses of that, whether they want to simply sell it for transportation use and using the California markets, or, for example, many electric utilities here are now using renewable natural gas as part of their renewable energy credit and their responsibility to consumers. Alternatively, we also work in with a utility who's mostly focused on trucking of gas. So, they like some of our more remote locations where we have lots of organic waste from the agricultural field, but not a whole lot of connection to the gas grid. So, they economically say, well, we'll let us begin to almost milk-run your gas. You know, think about it is picking it up and depositing it within cities or within a grid mark, that is at its most acceptable. So, we work in a couple of different ways in in in that area. It really depends on the client, really depends on the goal and objective and how much gas we're producing out of each one of our facilities.
AD: So, some of this gas will be used for road transport then?
PE: Absolutely. The move in this country is to compressed natural gas. We believe diesel will go the way of the dodo and particularly for long haul trucks. You know, I mean, if you think about it, people coming up and down the eastern seaboard. Diesel is too expensive, and it certainly doesn't it's not as effective in terms of its environmental quality. So, we're now working with a couple of companies on an Eastern Seaboard CNG compressed natural gas filling station primarily for long haul trucks. We also work… we have a project now with a university where that university is looking to take and transition all their vehicles to compressed natural gas. So, the vehicles that go in and around the university. Again, a smaller digester, but enough gas for them to meet their carbon reduction requirements. So, again, a lot of what we do is… well, let me say this. A long time ago or a while ago, people got very measured and very thoughtful about technology. And they said this is the coolest technology in the world. And they tried to find a way to go and solve somebody’s problem with. We work with our clients. Understand their challenges in the waste field. There are challenges in terms of the use of renewable natural products or to use where soil amendments. And then we, based on a performance, based on a mutually transparent view, say, look, here's the technology that seems to work. And if we do it this way, it's a benefit for all parties. I don't want to be selling a tech-to-tech. You know, it's cost me two cents with this screwdriver, three cents for that screwdriver. It's really a goal, an objective. Since we're in a community for twenty-plus years, you know, in building these facilities and we actually take on the financing of these projects. So, it's important for our audience to know is that when you look at this from a performer base, there is a real commitment to this local community. There is a real commitment to stay within this local community and be very successful. So, from our perspective, on projects where we have enough waste and we actually work closely with our clients, we actually finance the project. Come in and then build it in association with the municipality and or the bespoke client.
AD: Right. Well, I was going to ask you as my next question, how does this compare on costs? But I think you more or less answered it, because if you're going to cite the financial risk on a project, you clearly are confident that it is going to pay for itself and therefore the fuel, all the feedstock or whatever it is, sorry, the fuel or the gas that you're producing must be competitive in the market.
PE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we're willing to, you know, based on that perform as I said, ensuring guarantee or performance makes sense for us, then we're very, very… we feel very confident about that.
AD: OK. Now, looking to the future, you mentioned briefly something about hydrogen, and I said there are problems with hydrogen. The problem I'm aware of is that if you get hydrogen out of natural gas, you're left with CO2. And so, while you might go away and burn the hydrogen and it's perfectly clean, what happens to the CO2 that was extracted as part of the hydrogen production process?
PE: Well, I think that that's a very good point. I think there are new innovations that are being introduced every day, either in CO2 capture. So, for example, we take CO2 and we do a number of things with it. Now from working with large growers in greenhouses who are using CO2 on a regular basis to creating an industrial scale CO2 for use in beverages as well. I not as aware as I should be probably at the innovations in the hydrogen world. But groups like Bloom or Toyota and others are finding ways to scrub that CO2 making in ensuring that it is an inert gas and not doesn't maintain its properties. So, it's now goes through either a scrubbing technology and it's actually being disposed of, or it's actually being incorporated in a secondary or tertiary part of the technology. And I wish I knew more about it, but I'm way over my skis in terms of my technology, my technology understanding.
AD: Okay, well, you've given us a very interesting roundup of the technology on your place in promoting anaerobic digestion. Apart from hydrogen, what do you see as the future – more of the same and less and less diesel?
PE: I believe we believe very strongly that we deserve – the world of anaerobic digestion deserves a place at the renewable table. Electric has solar. They have wind. The only true renewable natural gas is one that comes from anaerobic digestion. It's the only true example of the circular economy at work. And it is the only thing that I believe that can succeed without necessarily a government subsidy, enabling this to enabling this to be implemented in cities and towns around the world. So, we believe a couple of things. One, we'd like a seat at the table. Two, We want to be able to have a holistic view of renewable natural energy, whether it be electricity or gas. And that we strongly think that in your in your hometown near you and that farm near you or the town near you. Don't be surprised to see it. Anaerobic digester become part of your community and can't become part of the long-term success in the renewable fields.
AD: Yeah, I think I prefer to have that in my community rather than one of these back-of-the-lorry nuclear power stations that are talking about developing, just feel a bit more comfortable with your technology, I think, than that,
PE: I think so. You know, I think the impact of this technology is really quite amazing. Our plan to are a typical 275,000-ton plant. I'm not sorry, a typical 100,000-ton plant that produces 275,000 MMBtus, you know, creates enough renewable natural gas for us to power 6,600 homes. In terms of electricity, I mean, that’s 5,500-5,600 cars off the highway and that's 26,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. So that's, that's a big impact. That's a couple of small natural parks working successfully, particularly in a local community. So as big companies are trying to figure out what to do with waste, as communities are trying to find ways to work with those large companies, ensuring economic development in the community itself. We believe we have a role there to support these towns long into the future.
AD: Peter, thank you very much. It's been a really interesting roundup of the situation and I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us here at the Sustainable Futures Report. Thanks again.
PE: Thank you very much, Anthony. It's a great, great, great, great podcast and we enjoy it very much.
Well that is very nice to hear. I was talking to Peter Ettinger, Chief development officer of Bioenergy DevCo. (https://bioenergydevco.com) Apologies for the bongs from Peter’s phone. Despite my best efforts I was not able to edit them out without editing him out as well.
And that’s it for this week. That was the second episode of the Sustainable Futures Report this week. Last Wednesday I published a conversation with Dr James Dyke of Exeter University. He was a co-signatory to a recent letter to the Guardian newspaper which said, “It’s game over for preventing dangerous climate change.” I asked him where we should go from here. Do listen if you’ve not already heard it and let me know what you think. And feedback about this episode and any other aspect of sustainability is always welcome. You could even send me an audio clip to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the way, last week I mentioned that Dr Kate Lancaster of the University or York had made a presentation recently on fusion energy. It’s on YouTube and the link is https://youtu.be/fJYwDZ8l5V8. .
That was the Sustainable Futures Report. There’ll be another episode, possibly even two, next week.
I’m Anthony Day.