Closed Loop Turns Waste Gas Into Energy

4 Apr 2013

Recently, Arthur discussed how a Coca-Cola machine plant is using methane (landfill gas), piped into the plant to generate almost 100% of its electricity and steam needs.  The Inland Empire Utilities Agency (IEUA), a regional wastewater treatment agency in California is also using methane to provide electricity for its Ontario wastewater treatment plant, but in this case, the IEUA is using an on-site fuel cell plant to turn its self-produced methane into electricity.  Fuel cells are devices that convert fuel into electricity through a clean electro-chemical process rather than dirty combustion.

As you may expect, the plant produces a lot of waste solids.  Some of that waste is consumed by an anaerobic digester on site at the plant,  but the bacteria in the digester produces another kind of waste – methane (which, as Arthur pointed out in his post,  is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2).  So IEUA installed a fuel cell power plant that uses the methane to make electricity – enough to meet 60% of the plant’s electricity needs.  The byproducts?  Water and heat, and the heat is fed back into the digester to keep the sewage eating bacteria nice and warm – a win-win situation.

Fuel cells have been around for a long time and many companies have been, and still are, trying to make them a viable solution to our everyday energy and environmental needs.  Fuel cells can provide cheap, reliable energy with reduced emissions and fuel cell plants are smaller than other alternative energy technologies such as wind farms and solar panels. 

This 60 minutes piece, which aired in 2010, featured a story on Bloom Energy and shows that fuel cell technology is not without its cautiously optimistic skeptics.  Bloom produces power generators using its patented solid oxide fuel cell technology and  boasts a customer list that includes Walmart, ebay, Google, Staples, Owens Corning and AT&T. 

IEUA received its fuel cell power plant from Canada’s Anaergia Inc., using fuel cells supplied by Fuel Cell Energy Corp. of Connecticut.  Anaergia Inc. provided the plant to IEUA for free and will get its money back over time by selling the electricity the power plant generates to the IEUA.

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