Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Distributed Generation -- roots-rock energy

"I'm doing my part to help America become energy self-reliant."

Distributed generation sometimes seems like the 21st-century version of 1960s recycling and compost heaps, but it is actually a part (albeit small) of the plan for the Smart Grid. Energy is generated at or near the place where it is used, with any excess usually sold to larger power plants in the grid. Often, the modular and scaleable plants at this level use renewable resources in a way reminiscent of early ecology movements, but with new and old technology configured into systems that allow for mobility and diversity of feedstocks. Below are three companies that are part of a movement that seems to be operating under the radar of national media attention.

Organic electricity

Let’s start with two Canadian companies that have teamed up to turn organic trimmings into electricity. Loblaw Companies Ltd. is Canada’s largest food distributor with 47 corporate grocery stores in southwestern Ontario. All of the organic trimmings -- meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and grease traps -- will be shipped to a nearby biogas facility run by StormFisher Biogas. StormFisher estimates that the organic material will produce enough biogas to operate turbines generating electricity to power 225 homes annually. The electricity produced at the facility will be sold to Ontario Power Authority.

The biogas results from a process called anaerobic digestion, much like what goes on in our own stomachs. In short, organic feedstock interacts with various bacteria and methanogens to produce the gas which is approximately 60% methane and 40% CO2. Liquids and solids also are produced during the process and can be sold as organic fertilizer. The plant, to be located in London, Ont., is expected to begin operation in late 2010.

Yes, in my back yard

In my last post, I wrote about W2 Energy and their mobile mass-to-energy trucks. Well, you can’t get much closer to home than their U.S. sales and marketing office in Laurel, Md. Rather than filling up landfills (and paying for the privilege), the mayor and city council agreed to allow W2 Energy to set up one of its mobile prototype units to convert 4 tons per day of municipal solid waste into electricity, ultra low sulfur diesel, and even gasoline and jet fuel.

The city currently collects 28 tons a day. W2 Energy calculates that each metric tone of municipal solid waste can produce about 100 gallons of liquid fuel and 200kw of electricity. The agreement with the City of Laurel will permit W2 Energy to install a full-size commercial plant to process all of the city’s municipal waste once the prototype has been proven and tested.

Cows want to help, too

Lastly, there is Green Mountain Power of Vermont and a herd of 1,200 cows, doing one of the things that cows can do so well, at Westminster Farms. Green Mountain Power and the farm, with their own funds and help from federal, state and local agencies, will set up a now, newly popular (it would seem) anaerobic digestor to convert the herd’s manure into electricity. Green Mountain estimates that cows will produce enough manure to generate 225kw of electricity, enough to power 250 homes. In addition, the project produces a revenue stream for the farm, helping to keep it profitable. Farm methane is just one of several renewable energy resources that Green Mountain has added to its portfolio, which includes hydro, wind, landfill methane, and a planned solar plant. Green Mountain provides about 25% of Vermont’s electricity needs.

Investment potential

Chances are that these three projects, or similar one, are occurring across the country and may be an early investment vehicle, before larger companies and projects begin to come on the scene.

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