MassDEP Program Will Recycle Organics for Clean Energy
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Results Program (CERP) is an innovative, first-of-its-kind new program that was launched in November 2011 by the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the Department of Energy Resources (DOER). The program is designed to maximize the combined resources of both agencies to better advance the siting and successful implementation of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects.
A key goal of CERP is to promote an increased capacity in the Commonwealth for anaerobic digestion (AD) — a process that breaks down food and other organic material to produce a renewable biogas (largely comprised of methane). This biogas is then combusted to generate electricity and heat. Just over a half-year from launch of this new program, the agencies are making great strides toward this goal.
Diverting commercial organic wastes (such as vegetable waste from farms, food processers, grocery stores, institutions, and restaurants) from the waste stream and converting them to a useful fuel has many significant benefits. Removal of these materials from the waste stream saves them taking up limited capacity in the state’s landfills.
In addition, because Massachusetts has some of the highest solid-waste disposal rates in the country (ranging from $60 to $90 a ton, nearly double the national average), recycling organic material for reuse can considerably offset disposal costs for the businesses that generate these materials. Furthermore, producing renewable biogas from anaerobic digestion is a sustainable, renewable energy solution. Active capture and use of methane from the breakdown of organic material reduces emissions of greenhouse gases and diminishes our dependency on fossil fuel.
MassDEP is working with DOER, the Mass. Department of Agriculture, the Mass. Clean Energy Council, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that, by 2020, the Commonwealth is generating 50 megawatts of electricity from this renewable source — up from the fewer than 10 megawatts being generated now. These partners also have a goal of diverting 350,000 tons per year of organic material from landfills and incinerators to anaerobic digestion and other organics-processing facilities; organic material represents more than 25% of the total amount of waste currently being thrown away in Massachusetts.
MassDEP and its partner agencies have identified specific steps to increase diversion of organic material for productive reuse via anaerobic digestion and other processing facilities. Those actions include streamlining and clarifying regulatory requirements, increasing diversion of food waste at large businesses and institutions to ensure a supply of material for anaerobic digestion, and encouraging appropriate siting of more anaerobic digestion projects across the Commonwealth.
MassDEP is in the final stages of amending its solid-waste regulations to facilitate significant expansion of the state’s capacity to process and recycle source-separated organics and other recyclable materials. Concurrent amendments to regulations governing municipal wastewater-treatment plants will allow those facilities to accept appropriate source-separated organics for AD processing, which will in turn boost their energy production and reduce their operating expenses. The agency has been working with stakeholders to address the thoughtful comments received on draft regulations earlier this year, and MassDEP’s final AD regulations are expected to be published by this fall.
In addition, agencies have made great progress conducting a preliminary evaluation of sites on public lands that may be well-suited for new anaerobic-digestion facilities. We have narrowed the sites to a manageable list of eight, and are meeting with the state Division of Capital Asset Management, agency heads, and host communities to talk about the feasibility for siting these demonstration projects.
Massachusetts has already made significant progress in diverting organics from the waste stream and has been a leader in working with commercial generators of organics on building an infrastructure for collection. Over the past decade, MassDEP has worked extensively with major supermarket chains in Massachusetts, and as a result more than 300 of the 600 supermarkets are diverting organics (produce and breads) from disposal for compost at nearby farms. MassDEP has also worked with a number of other business sectors that generate significant quantities of food waste to help them establish diversion programs. Sectors with active diversion programs include hotels, colleges and universities, convention centers, hospitals, and large restaurants.
Given the importance of diverting organic materials away from landfills and into beneficial renewable energy, the Commonwealth will soon be proposing adding commercial organics to the other materials currently banned from landfills and incinerators.
The Patrick-Murray Administration seeks to put all of these pieces together so that, before too long, all commercially generated organic waste is diverted from disposal and processed through AD to harvest the renewable fuel source.
In many European countries, large-scale anaerobic digestion of organic waste has proven successful in the creation of jobs, improving energy independence, stimulating economic growth, and being an important component of the renewable-energy strategy. Through the combined efforts of DOER, MassDEP, and other key stakeholders, Massachusetts is leading efforts to make this a reality in the Commonwealth.
Kenneth Kimmell is commissioner of the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection.