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Put Food Scraps In Get Electricity Out

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, May 24, 2011

INTRO: Imagine putting food and animal doo-doo into a machine and getting out electricity. That’s what an anaerobic co-digester will be doing in Fremont, Michigan. It will be the largest in the state. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus has the story.

The renewable energy race is still on, even though Governor Rick Snyder speaks less about it than his predecessor.

Fremont is in Newago County, about an hour north of Grand Rapids. It’s the headquarters of Gerber Baby Food. Gerber will be sending food scraps to a new anaerobic digester. Novi Energy LLC has $22 million worth of financing to build it. Novi’s CEO is Anand Gangadharan. Michigan has a few other digesters. But nearly all are based on cow manure. This one will take that and a lot more.

“Hot dogs, hot dog casings, food industry waste the whole spectrum, cheese whey, milk, ice cream, spoiled milk, spoiled ice cream, vegetables, restaurant waste, fats, oils, greases, including sewage waste. So the whole spectrum.”

The machine and the plant built around it will use technology tested in Denmark and used all over Europe. In New York City small scale digesters are being considered for high rise apartments plus restaurant rows like Hell’s Kitchen and Chinatown. The Fremont Community digester will power 1,500 homes. Anand Gangadharan touts the benefits.

“The gas that comes out, the bio gas, the green methane, is converted to electricity and sold to Consumers Energy. The digestate, the material left behind, is now a very good liquid nutrient, enough for us to fertilize 5,000 acres of corn crop. There is compost that is also very good as a soil amendment.”

The co-digester will recycle 100,000 tons of waste that would normally go to a landfill. Construction is supposed to be finished next year. Judy Canales is the Rural Business Administrator for the US Department of Agriculture. USDA is being asked to  guarantee the bank loan for the project. USDA has many programs, one of which focuses on renewable energy.

“This program allows for a loan a grant that can allow that business owner to go and replace a refrigeration unit or in some cases they may need new lighting. Whatever the needs are for that business to improve their energy costs and in the long run establish energy efficiency. Other examples have also been actually funding businesses who are maybe using solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal.”

Canales spoke to a group hosted by The Michigan State University Center For Community and Economic Development. The Center just published a study called Understanding Small Business Needs and Capital Access Barriers in Northern Lower Michigan.

Businesses want to grow. But in the last two years, banks haven’t been lending much anywhere.

President Ronald Reagan vowed to “get government off the backs of the people.”

Here in Michigan, republicans often say ‘government can’t create jobs. Businesses create jobs.’ I asked The USDA’s Judy Canales about this.

“We are basically a deliverer. We’re not the ones creating the jobs. When I speak about a loan guarantee we’re not a direct lender. I’m not here to directly lend. That’s not our job. We rely upon the banking system which is private.”

Last year in Michigan,  USDA Rural Development put $1.2 billion into, water, sewer, housing and small businesses. Most of it was loans not grants. Judy Canales says renewable energy breakthroughs will likely come from rural areas. She’s excited about the Fremont Community anaerobic co-digester.

“It’s time. We finally are getting there. Trash can make money.”

Canales herself is from the small town of Uvalde, Texas. She is back in Michigan Wednesday, celebrating USDA funded projects in Greenville and Muskegon. East Jordan and Blair Township near Traverse City are also celebrating USDA projects Wednesday too.

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