How anaerobic digesters are helping process organics while sustaining US farms

How anaerobic digesters are helping process organics while sustaining US farms

Vanguard Renewables builds anaerobic digesters on farms in the U.S. to help solve organics disposal challenges.

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October 29, 2019

Building anaerobic digesters (AD) in the United States to help solve food waste disposal challenges, produce renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions seemed like a no-brainer when John Hanselman and Kevin Chase, co-founders of Vanguard Renewables, began researching this technology in 2014.

But according to Hanselman, it was apparent more government support and source separation needed to happen for the systems to be successful in the U.S.

“Germany has 9,000 systems installed,” Hanselman says. “The U.S., at that point, had about 200. You dispose of food waste and animal waste and you make renewable natural gas. We asked, ‘Why hasn’t this happened?’ It doesn’t make any sense. It became obvious that it’s actually an incredibly complex series of interactions to make the digesters work.”

He adds, “The digester projects work beautifully in Germany because they have federal subsidies and tax credits” to support the installations.

Then, serendipitously, states in the Northeast began passing organics bans in 2014 to divert food waste from landfills.

That’s when Hanselman and Chase saw their opportunity to be pioneers in the space.

“We saw there was a coming trend of diversion and source separation of organics,” Hanselman says. “That was how we started Vanguard Renewables.”

Testing the waters

In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection banned businesses and institutions from disposing more than 1 ton of organics per week. Then, Vermont passed a law requiring large food waste generators to divert organics from landfill by 2020. Connecticut and New York have also passed laws requiring food waste generators to separate and recycle organics.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other state agencies started providing special funding for AD projects that help divert food waste from landfills.

"We started the whole process thinking we were a renewable energy company. What we really found out was we’re a farm-based food recycler.” –John Hanselman, executive chairman and co-founder of Vanguard Renewables

Vanguard’s goal is to place ADs on farms across North America. Massachusetts was their “lab” to test the feasibility of the projects, Hanselman says.

“Small farm food waste co-digestion wasn’t something a lot of people had done in the U.S.,” says Hanselman, who has 30 years of experience in renewable energy. “We started the whole process thinking we were a renewable energy company. What we really found out was we’re a farm-based food recycler. Renewable energy is one of our byproducts, but the real business is working with waste haulers, food waste generators and our farm partners to build a really functional interaction between all three parties, which don’t necessarily coincide.”

The first step to entering a new market was for Hanselman and Chase to figure out how much food waste was available and how many digesters could be supported. Vanguard estimated there were between 2,500 to 3,000 tons of accessible food waste per day generated in Massachusetts that could support seven digesters. The next step was to identify farms that were located near food waste generators and hauling partners.

Jordan Dairy Farms, a sixth-generation family farm founded in 1885 in Rutland, was the first farm in the state to partner with Vanguard on an AD project. Operated by brothers Randy and Brian Jordan, the 950-acre dairy farm had survived over the years despite a sharp decline in dairy prices. Prior to the AD project, the farm struggled to pay its $2,400 monthly electric bill.

“They realize dairy farmers are struggling to make ends meet,” Randy Jordan says. “There are days that are just really blue with challenges with weather or income. Vanguard Renewables, the digester, diverting food waste—all of this coming to life— has been a positive for us. It’s become critical to us.”

Vanguard built a 500,000-gallon AD on the farm in 2016. The digester processes 9,125 tons of manure and 20,000 tons of food waste per year into heat and renewable energy, which powers the digester, the farm and provides energy via metering credits to area businesses, including Worcester-based Polar Beverages. The farm also uses the “leftover liquid” from the AD process as odorless organic fertilizer for crops, which also results in cost savings for the farm. Jordan says he recently partnered with Vanguard to build a second digester.

Making connections

Vanguard Renewables leases the land from the farm and owns and operates the digester, which can be operated remotely or on-site by a manual operator. Vanguard has built five digesters in Massachusetts, which have the capacity to process 500 tons per day.

“Our farmers are a little reluctant at first to allow us to build these machines on their property. In the beginning, we built a lot of bridges,” Hanselman says. “We had to learn what the farmer cares about, what the food waste generator cares about and what the hauler cares about. The most rewarding part of what we’re doing is being able to help out family farms.”

Vanguard also offers competitive pricing compared with composting facilities and landfills, Hanselman says.

Jeff Helgerson, owner of Jeff D Helgerson Excavating Inc., an excavating and hauling company based in Charlton, Massachusetts, says his company hauls nonhazardous industrial waste, including restaurant wastewater, to all five of the digesters in the state.

“Most wastewater treatment plants accepted [this waste] 15 years ago, but over the years, that created problems with sewer lines, and treatment plants started to refuse it,” Helgerson says. “We’re constantly trying to find different places to bring the waste.”

Helgerson started hauling the waste to Vanguard’s AD at Jordan Dairy Farms. Helgerson also hauls waste from local breweries to the digester daily, delivering roughly 9,000 gallons per load.

Helgerson says he gets six cents per gallon for hauling waste to area wastewater treatment plants and 11 cents per gallon for bringing it to the digesters, which makes AD the attractive choice. As an added benefit of AD, he says customers like to know their waste is going to produce renewable energy that comes along with the process.

“There have been failures of digesters in the past, and digesters have been historically unreliable,” Hanselman says. “When we went into Massachusetts, our initial plan was to build seven digesters to make sure we had that redundancy and reliability because we knew that it was critical to our hauling partners.”

Helgerson says he sees business picking up as more food waste generators are faced with disposal challenges. He adds that ADs may be “more of a trend” with wastewater treatment plants becoming more selective of incoming material.

Building a national platform

Building AD systems on a small scale in Massachusetts has led to opportunities in other states that have passed organics-to-landfill bans. Vanguard has started construction of a new AD project on its sixth farm in Vermont and is in the process of permitting three farms in New York.

“Working with these farms doing co-digestion, we’re not the first in the country, but we’re certainly the largest doing that,” Hanselman says. “We’re proud of the ‘Farm Powered’ logo we’ve designed, and tying food manufacturers and restaurants back to the farm to us is critically important. What’s amazing is the number of customers we take out to tour the farm who have never seen where their milk or cheese comes from. Helping communicate the farm message to the community has been fun.”

Hanselman says he expects the trend of organics-to-landfill bans to continue across the country, leading to company growth.

“The regulatory view of getting organics out of landfill seems obvious and important now where it wasn’t six years ago,” Hanselman says. “I think a large portion of the U.S. over the next 10 years will enforce some sort of ban. I think that’s going to have an enormous impact.”

Today, there’s also a trend of Americans wanting to know where their food comes from. The demand for transparency is moving into the waste industry, which “has been critical to all of our sales,” Hanselman says.

“People didn’t really care where their waste went for a long time. Now it’s important for people to know how much of their waste is being recycled, especially with our corporate customers. This is something they feel they’re going to have to report on in the not-too-distant future and they’re really taking it serious.”

To this end, Hanselman says Vanguard is working with national food manufacturers on AD projects on a national scale.

“We’re starting to work with larger food manufacturers on how to roll this program out in each of the markets they’re in,” Hanselman says. “We wanted to use Massachusetts as a laboratory, which has been incredibly exciting and rewarding. It’s going to be exciting to see how we go from one market to the next in the coming years.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. issue of Waste Today. The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at kmaile@gie.net.