In a world where the national focus has turned to sustainability and renewable energy, communities everywhere are struggling to beat both the technological and practical hurdles standing in the way of affordable energy. The community of Lowell is currently enduring one of those hurdles as it struggles to address the smelly, unexpected side effect of a biodigester operating within the city limits.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE BIODIGESTER
In 2011, the Lowell City Council and Lowell Light & Power took a step towards Lowell’s energy independence and voted unanimously to proceed with the construction of a biodigester facility to provide renewable energy to area residents. While the City Council membership has changed in recent years, current Mayor Jeff Altoft and Council Member Jim Hodges were on the council and voted for the project.
In order to secure grant funding for the project, a public-private partnership needed to be formed. As a result, the facility would be owned by Spart while Lowell Light & Power would sign a Power Purchase Agreement to obtain the renewable energy from them. Spart, which is short for the company’s full name of Sustainable Partners, LLC, is the responsible party for the management, maintenance and staffing of the Lowell biodigester.
WHY BUILD A BIODIGESTER?
The question of “Why?” is on the minds of many residents each day, particularly when the smell of the biodigester seeps into their homes preventing them from enjoying time with their families in their own backyard. The answer lies with a state law.
In 2008, the State of Michigan enacted Public Act 295, The Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act. Act 295 required electric providers to use clean, renewable energy for 10 percent of the power they provided by 2015. Unfortunately for Lowell Light & Power, the utility had sold its hydro facility in 1970. To meet the requirements of the law, it would now need to look for an outside renewable source with power it could purchase, or the alternative was to look within and find a way to provide renewable energy without purchasing from the outside grid.
Lowell Light & Power opted to take the second option, in part because the utility administration and board members had decided it was in the best interest of the city to create power locally. Prior to the development of the biodigester, all power in the city was purchased and came in from lines connected to distant power plants. If something were to happen to those lines, there was a fear the city would go dark without a back-up power source nearby.
NEW TECHNOLOGY TAPPED FOR LOWELL FACILITY
Wind and solar power can be unreliable in West Michigan, but biofuel held promise as a renewable energy source that wasn’t dependent on the whims of the weather. Several options and companies were researched by Lowell Light & Power, but in the end, with the blessing of the City Council, Spart was chosen.
Spart proposed a facility that would utilize an anaerobic digestion system of organic waste to produce methane. The benefits promoted by Spart highlighted more than just renewable energy production. Waste would no longer be hauled to landfills, where methane emissions are increasingly a problem. Methane, according to the IPCC, warms the planet 86 times faster than CO2. What’s more, the bi-product of this process, called digestate, could be used as a fertilizer, making it an even more sustainable energy source. As presented, the biodigester seemed to have plenty of positives and very few negatives.
Spart partnered with a German company, EnCo2, which had experience in building this type of facility. Currently there are over 8,000 biodigesters in Germany, but only a few hundred in the United States. The facility Spart had proposed for Lowell would be an Upflow, Downflow, Reflow system, and the first of its kind in the US. The proposed feedstock would be farm waste from a local dairy farm and wastewater from Litehouse Foods.
FOG CLOUDS THE ISSUE
In February of 2012, Greg Northrup, owner of Spart, announced they were adding an additional feedstock to the biodigester, one known as FOG (Fats, Oils & Greases) from restaurants. The FOG was said to increase the BTU content and bring the cost of electricity down.
Around the same time, Lowell Light & Power was making plans to ensure the facility would meet the hype. Members of the board, led by Greg Canfield and Perry Beachum, repeatedly expressed concern about the possibility of the biodigester having an odor. To ensure it would not, a team was assembled to visit some of the German facilities to get a better understanding of what Lowell would be bringing to its community. Upon returning, they reported that the facilities were clean, well managed and did not appear to give off any offensive odors.
At the time of the Germany visit, it was believed manure and waste from Litehouse would be the main feedstocks for the facility, and the tour did not include visits to any biodigester using FOG from restaurants. While not anticipated during this fact-finding trip, the Lowell biodigester has relied heavily on FOG, which appears to be responsible for the strong smell many residents have had to endure.
THE CURRENT SMELLY SITUATION
Fast forward to 2016, and the biodigester is now a reality. Spart now operates the facility as The Lowell Energy AD Biodigester, also known as LEAD. Litehouse has been utilizing a pipeline it built to the LEAD facility to transfer its food processing waste to the biodigester to be turned into energy. FOG from restaurants is brought in by truckloads, and the facility uses some manure from a local dairy farm. Renewable energy is being produced. It would seem that this is a success story.
That is, unless you happen to be near Chatham Street on a humid day. Residents and business owners near the facility can tell you the promised odor free facility is anything but odor free. And although it appears the smell does not bring with it any toxic substances, it is making some residents feel sick. As anyone with a nose can tell you, something needs to be done to eliminate the odors immediately.
HOW THE CITY OF LOWELL AND LOWELL LIGHT & POWER ARE RESPONDING
By all accounts, Lowell Light & Power and the City of Lowell are taking this matter very seriously. Lowell Leads the Way spoke to Steve Donkersloot, who became the General Manger of Lowell Light & Power on July 13, 2016, and he reiterated the importance of handling this matter as quickly as possible.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s two people or 50 people that are affected, we are taking this seriously,” Donkersloot says. In his first month as General Manager, he contacted the city attorney to have the contract with Lowell Energy AD (Spart) reviewed to determine the city’s rights and what legal action could be taken. In addition, Donkersloot has been actively working with residents, responding to complaints and keeping the community informed of all actions being taken to mitigate the odors. He stays in daily contact with the owners of LEAD as he pushes for a swift resolution to the problem.
Meanwhile, legal action is being considered, but any resolution through the courts could take time. However, both sides hope to avoid a legal battle. A meeting with the owners of LEAD, their investors’ attorney, the City of Lowell and Lowell Light & Power appeared to show great progress. The owners of LEAD and their investors reportedly agreed that if they cannot eliminate the odor, the facility will be shut down. LEAD has hired an engineering company that specializes in these types of facilities to design a cover for the settling tank (IFAS tank) which is the the suspected source of the odors.
Greg Canfield, the Lowell Light & Power Chairman of the Board, was asked what he is doing to assist with the current odor issue and what Lowell Light & Power will do to replace the renewable energy needed to comply with the 10 percent mandate in the event of a biodigester shutdown. He responded that he has been working closely with Greg Northrup (owner of LEAD), as well as going door to door talking to the residents fielding complaints.
Keeping the community informed of the efforts being put forth and ensuring them that they are doing everything they can legally at this point to solve the problem has been a priority, Canfield says. As far as replacing the lost renewable energy if the biodigester shuts down, Canfield states Lowell Light & Power owns shares in the Granger Biogas landfill, where they can obtain between 8-9 percent of their needed renewable energy. He also explained Lowell Light & Power can sell some of its Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to make up the difference. There is also the possibility of buying energy from a Michigan wind facility that should be completed elsewhere in the state in 4-6 months.
THE CONCLUSION IS YET TO BE WRITTEN
Where will this end? Renewable energy mandates are not going away. Currently in the State of Michigan, there is a proposal moving forward that would mandate new standards, which could mean even more energy must come from renewable standards.
In May of 2016, legislation was passed through the Senate Energy and Technology Committee that targets higher requirements for renewable energy. The new efficiency and renewable standard being debated is between 30-35 percent by the year 2025. What will that mean for the residents of Michigan and for small communities like Lowell who are already realizing the real challenges of green energy?
As for the residents of Lowell, many remain positive about the future of renewable energy. Having a source of power in the city will provide stability while the positive environmental impact may be felt for generations to come. While no one is a fan of the smell, many believe taking the time to work through these challenges will result in a better future for the city and all who live here.
Note on how this article was reported:
This article is the culmination of an in-depth review of City Council and Lowell Light & Power minutes along with discussions with area residents and city leaders. To gain some perspective on the process of bringing the biodigester to town and what actions are being taken now to address the smell, we contacted the following individuals specifically:
Greg Northrup: Mr. Northrup was unable to comment due to legal concerns.
Steve Donkersloot: The Lowell Light & Power manager had several phone conversations with us regarding the biodigester’s history and current action being taken to address the smell.
Greg Canfield: The Chair of the Lowell Light & Power board met with us and explained the history of the biodigester from the board’s perspective as well as his actions to push for a quick resolution from LEAD.
Alan Teelander: We contacted Councilmember Teelander since he is the council representative on the Lowell Light & Power board. However, it appears Councilmember Teelander does not plan to actively work toward a resolution to the current issue since he was not on the council at the time the biodigester was approved and was never in favor of the project from the start. He suggested we contact the utility board instead and his emailed response stated, in part, “I have no vote and no say in what the LL&P Board does and I came late to that party.”
Jeff Altoft: The current mayor has been vocal in stating he was long opposed to the development of a biodigester in the city. However, our review of the city council minutes show very little discussion from then-councilmember Altoft about the biodigester, and he did not appear to express any concerns when he voted for it. Unfortunately, Mayor Altoft did not reply to our request for comments.