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Sunday, 11 November 2012 20:13

HTI’s pursuit of alt. energy leads to the mountain of wisdom

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HTI’s pursuit of alt. energy leads to the mountain of wisdom Courtesy photo
HOWARD CITY — When faced with a mountain of crap, people can either start digging or give up and walk away.

Or, if you’re Dave Prouty at Heat Transfer International, you put the collective knowledge of a team of engineers versed in proven energy technology to work to create a sustainable solution.

That’s what Prouty thought he had done in 2009 with the launch of a manure-to-energy project at Sietsema Farms in Howard City. But what the project demonstrated was that even the best-laid plans can go awry.

“Getting (to a successful project) is like climbing Everest,” Prouty said. “There are a lot of bodies lying all along the way.”

While his team relied on tested technology in developing a way to heat and power Sietsema’s 1.3 million-turkey farm operation, the company had to overcome a mountain of engineering challenges to get the project working correctly.

The biomass energy facility didn’t fully come online until late 2011, when HTI and Sietsema began implementing it in phases. The facility has since evolved from a wonky, first-of-its-kind prototype into a well-oiled producer of alternative energy.

“We’ve gotten to a place nobody else has,” Prouty said. “This is something no one else has done.”

When it was announced, the Sietsema Farms project was touted as one of the most innovative alternative energy projects of its kind locally. But the project wasn’t without its lessons learned.

Prouty said the project encompassed more than 100,000 engineering hours, including the research and translation of nearly century-old German patents, and tens of millions of dollars over about five years to get to where the partners are today.

HTI’s Starved Air-Low Temperature (SALT) biomass gasification system — combined with an air turbine for energy conversion — produces both electricity and steam power. What’s unique about the system is that it doesn’t require water or steam to make baseload electrical power, Prouty said.

Previous reports noted the Sietsema facility produced enough electrical energy to power about 400 homes and enough heat to warm about 150 homes on the worst winter day.

The technology has been known for a long time, but it died and was lost because of 80 years of cheap oil and gas, Prouty said.

What put the initial project over the hump was a perfect storm that included a willing and passionate company owner, hiring solid local engineering talent, and good partnership with the state, The Right Place Inc. and Comerica Bank, Prouty said.

Prouty credits the project’s mere existence to the early move to bring in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to help navigate the political process and the team’s effort to build trust with Comerica Bank when no one else would touch the project.

“We tried to make friends versus enemies by doing what’s right and telling people our story,” Prouty said. “Still, there were definitely mornings when I woke up things didn’t go right.”

In developing what amounted to a full-scale prototype, Prouty said his team learned a great deal in getting all the pieces of the complex system to work properly.

The first challenge that Prouty and the company had was the fact that there are very few labs that know how to work with biomass fuels. So in order to do any fuels testing, the company decided to build its own lab. Then HTI struggled to find people that understood the process enough to help the company decode the technology. Eventually, Prouty met and convinced Bob Graham, a recognized biomass guru, to move to Kentwood to work on the project.

“Bob introduced us and woke us up to the technology,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is go back into history, dust it off and bring it into modern technology.”

The result is a fully automated project that can be run off an iPad, but the company’s mission is far from accomplished, Prouty said. Now HTI has even more projects in its sights, despite the challenging nature of pulling the projects together.

“At some point we had the realization that with each failure the team got stronger and that perhaps the final product was worth the pain,” Prouty said. “I think it’s a belief that we could make a difference and that the challenge would be exciting, but in truth we were unaware of the obstacles that we would encounter.

“If you knew the trials you would encounter on the journey, I don’t think you would ever take the first step. Maybe it is best to be naive.”

HTI has several projects in the pipeline and is looking to start the one by the end of the year, Prouty said. While details are still under wraps, Prouty is working with an out-of-state municipality in the Midwest that would construct a SALT system two to three times the size of the one at Sietsema Farms.

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