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Efforts grow in Mass. to turn food waste into energy

State’s landfill rules spur plans for plants

State agencies, municipalities, and several companies have recently spent millions of dollars and plan to spend much more to build an array of industrial plants from Bourne to Greenfield that will convert hundreds of thousands of tons of food waste into energy.

The new facilities are being designed as landmark regulations take effect next year to make Massachusetts the first state to ban hospitals, universities, hotels, and large restaurants — in all, about 1,700 big businesses and institutions — from discarding food waste in the trash.

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State officials expect the new plants will allow more commercial food waste — and eventually residential food waste — to be diverted from landfills, which are increasingly expensive, short on space, and release gases that eventually trap heat in the atmosphere.

“It appears to us that this new industry is taking off,” said Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The rules, which take effect next July, will require any company or organization that produces more than one ton of organic waste a week — including refuse such as weeds and manure — to dispose of it by composting, donating what is edible to food pantries, or sending it to one of the new anaerobic digestion plants being planned in Dartmouth, Fall River, Shirley, and elsewhere.

State officials said private haulers will deliver the food scraps to more than 10 new plants by 2016. The anaerobic digesters, one of which already exists on a farm in Rutland, convert methane from food into power that feeds into the region’s electrical grid. The methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, is contained by the plants and not released into the atmosphere.

Bill Jorgenson, managing partner at AGreen Energy in Boston, which owns the Rutland farm, is planning to build two additional plants on farms in Greenfield and Hadley, which he expects will each begin processing as much as 40 tons of organic waste a day by early next year.

His company is planning experiments at a Whole Foods in Boston and a Big Y supermarket in Holden that will use specially designed equipment to convert food waste there into a slurry that will be transported to their anaerobic digesters.

“We wanted to do this because we wanted to sustain family farms,” said Jorgenson, noting that the energy produced offsets utility costs for the farms. “The state’s organic waste ban allows us to do this on a larger scale.”

But some business groups affected by the new regulations worry about the potential costs and whether a sufficient number of plants will be operating by the time the ban takes effect. They will have to pay for the food waste to be hauled away. They have also raised concerns about how long the waste will remain on their property and worry it could attract rodents.

“Our biggest concerns are where to put the food waste in the restaurant, where does it go, and who’s paying the costs for the hauling,” said Stephen Clark, director of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which represents about 5,000 restaurants.

Kimmell said he expects most businesses will save money on their trash bills, by diverting trash from landfills, which have grown increasingly expensive in recent years.

Massachusetts has some of the highest solid-waste disposal rates in the country — between $60 and $90 a ton, compared with a national average of about $45 a ton — and the fees are expected to rise as landfills fill up.

State landfill capacity is expected to drop from about 2.1 million tons last year to about 600,000 tons in 2020. And given the difficulties of issuing permits for a new site, no new landfills are planned.

Organic waste makes up as much as a quarter of what is sent to state landfills and incinerators. Officials say the food waste ban will be a crucial component in overall efforts to reduce the waste stream by 30 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050.

The initial one-ton threshold for the food waste ban is likely to be lowered significantly in the coming years, drawing in many more businesses, state officials say, and that worries restaurateurs.

State officials intend to eventually apply the ban to residential food waste, though they will not say when that will happen.

“We’re watching this cautiously,” Clark said. “We would be very concerned if the threshold came down right away.”

About 100,000 tons of food waste a year is already being diverted from landfills in Massachusetts — most of it from supermarkets — with about three-quarters being sent to compost facilities.

State officials have set a goal to divert an additional 350,000 tons by 2020, with much of it being converted into energy at the new or expanded plants.

To prod companies to build anaerobic digesters, the state Department of Energy Resources is offering $3 million in low-interest loans to private companies and $1 million in grants to public entities. The first grant of $100,000 has been given to the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency to process food waste at its waste-water treatment plant on Deer Island.

Environmental officials say the state expects to be able to convert 100,000 tons of food waste a year into energy at the new digesters by next July. They expect to nearly triple that capacity by 2016, when about a dozen plants should be operating at private farms, on state property, and at waste-water treatment facilities.

Paul Sellew, chief executive of Harvest Power in Waltham, said his company is negotiating to build a plant at a landfill in Bourne and is spending millions of dollars planning about a half-dozen projects throughout the state, including one in Boston.

“With 97 percent of food waste still being landfilled or burned, and with proven technology to convert much of that into energy, it doesn’t make any sense to continue doing what Massachusetts has been doing,” he said.

Another company, NEO Energy of Portsmouth, N.H., has already signed agreements to build plants in Fall River and Millbury, which together will cost about $30 million and process a combined 75,000 tons of food waste. They are also considering other projects in Massachusetts.

“Not only will they displace fossil fuel generation, they work when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining,” said Tony Callendrello, chief operating officer of the firm. “We see these facilities as providing environmental as well as economic benefits.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.
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