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Energy From Waste

Anaerobic digestor to convert food waste into renewable energy.

In the 1989 movie “Back to the Future Part II,” there are many predictions about the year 2015. For example, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown powers his time machine with banana peels, beer and a beer can. While this is not precisely how energy is produced now, more and more efforts are being made to generate green energy from food waste.

One of the biggest projects of this kind—an anaerobic digester that turns food waste into renewable energy—is set to be built on Long Island, New York, by August 2016.

Once completed, the anaerobic digester will be able to process 180,000 tons of local food waste per year and convert it into energy: vehicle fuel, electricity, fertilizer and nutrient-rich water. American Organic Energy (AOE), a waste management company, will operate the plant. AOE, in partnership with companies like GE Power & Water, quasar energy and ScottsMiracle-Gro, has designed the means to separate and break down Long Island’s food waste into renewable energy. Charles Vigliotti, president and chief executive officer of AOE, said in an interview with Politico that, at the new anaerobic digester facility, “We’ll separate the tuna from the can, and recycle the tuna and recycle the can.”

The anaerobic digester will be built on  Long Island Compost’s already-existing 25-hectare facility in the town of Yaphank.

Anaerobic digestion is a process by which micro-organisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, producing a gas predominantly composed of methane and carbon dioxide, otherwise known as biogas. In addition to biogas, the process also produces digestate, a solid fibrous residue and nutrient-rich liquid.

Not only is this an innovative form of waste management for Long Island, it’s also a sign of what’s possible in the renewable energy sector in the United States and around the world.

The Long Island anaerobic digester will have huge environmental benefits for the region. “The energy from biogas will be used in several ways,” says Peter Constantakes, spokesperson for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “One, electricity produced from a six megawatt biogas-fueled power generation system will provide for on-site electrical needs. Two, biogas will be refined and compressed for use in trucks at the site. And three, refined biogas will be injected into the natural gas pipeline that is used by the public.”

The Long Island plant will be completely self-sustainable and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40,000 tons.

The digester is also important from a regulatory perspective.

The Long Island “anaerobic digester project aligns with the goals of Governor [Andrew M.] Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision strategy to promote clean energy innovation and attract new investment to build a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers,” says Constantakes.

Potential sources for feeding the anaerobic digester on Long Island are local hospitals, restaurants and supermarkets. “We’re not at all concerned [about] our ability to fill up this plant. There’s more than enough food waste on Long Island,” said Vigliotti in his interview. As it stands, Long Island Compost already converts the region’s yard waste into high-quality organic soil.

“This project,” says Constantakes, “will also help to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, which will achieve both economic and environmental benefits to local communities.”


Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.