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In a 53-foot trailer on an empty parcel along the Columbia River in Oregon, a Minnesota company is testing what it hopes will be a major leap forward in waste-to-energy technology.
Developed by Novus Energy, LLC, the trailer contains an anaerobic digester that converts agricultural waste into methane and liquid fertilizer. The site could soon host a $22 million anaerobic digestion plant.
“Today most of the waste-to-energy plants are making biogas to convert to electricity,” said Joe Burke, president and chief executive officer. “We expect this plant to be the first commercial scale system to produce biogas for eventual use in California’s municipal transportation system.”
Anaerobic digesters are part of a growing effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through production of renewable fuels, with the added benefit of diverting agricultural waste from landfills.
Novus claims its proprietary Novus Bio-Catalytic Conversion system ferments waste over three times as fast as traditional anaerobic processes, producing four times as much methane. A 2012 study by Sebesta Blomberg & Associates backed up the company’s claims, as did a double-blind study by Marquette University. Because the studies carry trade secrets they are unavailable to the public.
The company’s groundbreaking technology drew Harris Companies of St. Paul to work with Novus on the mobile trailer and on plans for the Oregon plant, according to vice president Rob Latta. The company had worked with wastewater treatment facilities and anaerobic digestion facilities in the past.
“It’s a significantly different (digestion) process and that’s what really interested us,” he said. “They have a more efficient method of converting the waste products into methane than we’ve seen and that’s why we’re helping them build the plant.”
Surya Pidaparti, vice president of Novus, believes the company has a better understanding of the science of how each part of the anaerobic process works and has focused on optimizing it while paying attention to potential challenges such as the emission of potentially nasty odors.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently wrote about the municipally owned Hometown BioEnergy in the Minnesota town of LeSeuer which has struggled to reach its electricity production goals and has been emitting a “stinky” odor that troubles nearby neighbors.
“We were very disappointed in that situation, it doesn’t help the industry,” Pidaparti said.
While anaerobic digestion has been practiced for more than a millennium, industrial scale operations – and even farm-based ones – are relatively rare in the United States. The federal government hopes to jumpstart the industry with an allocation of money for projects.
The Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan offers a biogas roadmap that points out the country has around 240 digesters producing enough energy to power the equivalent of more than 70,000 homes. The goal is to add another 11,000 digesters, enough to power three million homes.
Novus hopes to eventually work with food producers in the Midwest on digesters. For now, however, its attention lies in Oregon, where if the financial pieces fall into place the company will build the plant.
“We have had great conversations with major food producers in (the Twin Cities) and they’re interested in what we’re doing on the cutting edge of biodigestion,” Burke said. “What they want to see is an operational plant to see how it performs and how it could impact their waste reduction goals.”
So rather than continuing to pitch the idea, Novus found the greatest interest in Oregon. “For now it’s about focus, and our focus is in Oregon,” he said, noting that there are future plans for a plant in the Midwest.
The Oregon project
The Novus project is located in the Port of Morrow, 164 miles east of Portland in an area rich in organic and natural farms. The location, which is Oregon’s second largest port, has attracted three other renewable energy companies, Burke said.
Carrying the moniker Novus Pacific, the five acre plant will process 335 tons of waste a day, producing 1.9 million standard cubic feet of biogas, along with fertilizer and fiber, Burke said.
A liquid fertilizer byproduct can be sprayed using existing irrigation systems, an approach dubbed “fertigation” by farmers. Another byproduct is a fiber that can replace commercially mined peat moss while serving to improve water retention, especially in sandy soils, Burke said.
BP subsidiary IGI Resources has agreed to a 10-year contract with Novus to purchase the biogas for sale to municipal bus fleets in California, Burke said.
Novus’ feedstock supplier, Pacific Ag Solutions, is located near the port, and will bring in plenty of potato, onion and dairy manure waste. “All those things have come together very well,” Burke said.
Raising the money, however, remains a challenge. The company has $2 million invested and could receive a $11 million bank loan, contingent upon a loan guarantee from the United States Department of Agriculture biorefinery assistance program.
Earning money off the investment shouldn’t be a problem. “It will profitable from year one with biogas and an organic natural fertilizer,” Burke said.
Building the plant would be a strong first step to creating a trajectory for the bioenergy company. Burke hopes to grow the staff to more than 20 once the plant is built. And more plants will be constructed if the Oregon operation shows the expected results.
The company is hardly new, having begun in 2004 and deciding in 2009 to focus mainly on the NBC process. Two years later Novus recapitalized.
Early investor and board chairman Chuck Wood said the company was mismanaged in the early years until Burke and Pidaparti arrived. The board agreed to focus energy on the NBC process through testing it in the mobile demonstration plant.
For Wood, a former Minnesotan living in Utah, it has been a long wait as the technology was crafted and the money was continually raised to keep the business going.
If all were to go exceptionally well and Novus raised $4 million more beyond the $22 million the plant size could double.
“I’m very optimistic about our prospects and I’m confident we will have a shovel in the ground very soon,” he said.