LOWELL — The early excitement built up over a renewable energy facility in Lowell had begun to fade roughly a year ago, and formally ended on Dec. 1 when local officials moved to permanently cut ties with its operator.
The 800-kilowatt anaerobic biodigester, which processed food and agricultural waste into electricity for the local utility, had for months drawn the ire of nearby residents for its strong odors that ultimately weren’t contained.
Local officials say the facility was mired by a series of ongoing letdowns since it started operating in early 2015. On Dec. 1, the Lowell City Council voted unanimously to terminate multiple contracts with Lowell Energy AD (LEAD). One was a power-purchase agreement between LEAD and Lowell Light and Power, the other a lease agreement between LEAD and the city. The company failed to comply with orders to control odors from the facility, according to city officials.
“The project looked really good on paper, but it’s been nothing but a problem here,” said City Councilman Greg Canfield, who recently resigned his position on the Lowell Light and Power board after being elected to the council. “It was poorly designed, poorly constructed and poorly operated. This was supposed to put Lowell on the map for a leading technology, but it’s put us on the map for what not to do. The community is really sick of it.”
Greg Northrup, LEAD’s managing member, said on Dec. 2 the company is “solely focused on stabilizing the situation” at the site. He declined to comment further, but provided a one-page prepared statement.
“We are disappointed by this news,” Northrup said. “The vision for the Lowell waste-to-energy project was to create low-cost, sustainable energy for the city, and offer some key area companies a more environmentally responsible disposal option.
“This project has suffered from the start, through a combination of construction shortfalls and operational issues.”
LEAD ceased operations at the site on Nov. 23 to “overhaul its odor control points throughout the operation,” which was completed on Nov. 27 at a cost of $250,000. During that time, though, the company had to address sludge spilling from the facility, which tore the membrane of the biodigester. A letter from LEAD’s attorneys to the city said the spilling was “completely unrelated” to ongoing efforts to control odors.
“We have worked diligently for the past six months to successfully address odor issues from the entire operation, only to have the digester unit encounter a significant malfunction. There was no potential for an explosion,” Northrup said in the statement.
Northrup is also principal of Grand Rapids-based Sustainable Partners LLC, which developed a 1.4-megawatt biodigester in Coopersville on Beaver Creek Farm that sells electricity to Consumers Energy.
RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCE
Canfield, who was chairman of the utility board for nearly 10 years, said the facility never ramped up to full production, reaching only about 50 percent of its 800-kW capacity.
“It hasn’t really created a lot of electricity up to this point,” he said.
While the utility was able to incorporate the project as part of its renewable energy portfolio as required under a 2008 state law, the utility already had sources to meet the 10-percent requirement, he added.
“We didn’t really need this for renewable energy (requirements),” Canfield said.
The anaerobic digester converts food waste and manure from nearby sources into methane gas, which powers turbines to generate electricity. The system capacity was designed to power more than 700 homes.
At the outset, the facility was seen as an economic development tool, helping process waste that otherwise was being hauled to Muskegon. The biodigester also brought in property tax revenue under the lease agreement for city utility-owned land.
The Lowell biodigester’s development was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult market for the energy source in Michigan. While providing reliable baseload renewable power, waste-to-energy facilities have struggled to take off in the U.S. because, in most cases, they aren’t economically feasible. As of August 2014, only six operated in Michigan despite a robust agricultural sector that could provide feedstock.
Canfield said when a new operator, Veolia North America, took over roughly a year ago and changed the feedstock mix, “the odor problems started.”
“Everyone gave them a pass as they were new and trying to get it dialed in,” Canfield said as he recalled board meetings last year on the topic. “When they changed the process to increase the methane output to generate more electricity, then the odor was significantly increased.”
The odor problems accelerated this spring and it was “an awful summer” for nearby residents, Canfield said. The company was reportedly fined by Lowell police eight times, for a total of $2,700, for nuisance odors.
The city also had an option to purchase the facility 10 years after the biodigester reached full production, although that never happened. It was originally pitched by a private company that could more easily take advantage of tax credits to build the facility.
“It looked like it could be a good thing,” Canfield said of the development. “Obviously, the way it’s gone, I don’t think there’s any chance we’d be interested in purchasing it.”
Lowell City Manager Michael Burns said the council directed him to “work amicably” with LEAD “to terminate the lease agreement with the city and dismantle the biodigester” by Jan. 16. The municipal utility also will terminate its power-purchase agreement for the electricity.
“The attempt is to dismantle it and for it to be gone,” Burns said.
As this report went to press, the future for the biodigester looks uncertain at best.
“As we consider the future of this project, it is with the understanding that the waste-to-energy system cannot negatively impact our neighbors,” Northrup said. “If we determine that we cannot reliably run this system without subjecting the neighbors to off-site odors, it simply will not reopen.”
Canfield said the city isn’t interested in taking it over, citing the ongoing problems.
“This thing has just gone wrong time after time,” he said. “It’s like a whack-a-mole thing. A problem pops up, you take care of it, then another one comes back. Nothing has gone right with this from the start.”