Government and Sustainability

City calls foul on sustainable energy facility

Odor from anaerobic digester forces Lowell City Council to terminate contracts.

December 23, 2016
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An energy project that was supposed to make a local city a leader in sustainable energy has turned foul.

After several months of promises from the facility operator to rectify the situation, the Lowell City Council voted to terminate its contracts with Lowell Energy AD (LEAD).

LEAD is the company behind the $6-million anaerobic digester that was built in Lowell and began operating in February 2015.

It was designed and built by enCO2, a German company, to convert organic waste into methane, or “biogas,” which is burned to drive the combined heat and power generator. The facility was expected to generate enough electricity to power 800 homes in the community.

LEAD leased city property at 625 Chatham St. for the project and Lowell Light and Power, the city’s energy provider, entered into a contract to purchase energy from the biodigester. The plan also called for the city to eventually purchase the facility from LEAD after taking advantage of several tax credits for which the project was eligible.

Michael Burns, Lowell city manager, said residents from a nearby neighborhood on the west end of the community began complaining about a foul odor coming from the biodigester last fall.

“I don’t know what happened during the winter months, but once spring came, the odor started to get bad again, and by summer, it was really bad,” Burns said.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality investigated the situation on multiple occasions, and LEAD was cited with multiple nuisance violations over the odor.

Burns said most recently, LEAD was given until Nov. 1 to rectify the problem.

“We worked with them to develop an odor mitigation plan, and they had until Nov. 1 to correct the odor, and they haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “The odor is still a problem. As a result, the Lowell City Council has directed the city attorney and I to work toward terminating the agreements with LEAD.

“They’ve also had significant issues with their wastewater discharge, and as a result, I’ve been directed by the city council to have the wastewater superintendent revoke their discharge permits.”

Burns said LEAD has been notified, and he hopes the parties can come to an amicable termination agreement.

“If not, I guess we would have to look into other options,” he said.

Prior to the city council vote, LEAD issued a statement to the media with the following quote from Greg Northrup, its managing partner, in response to the facility’s most recent troubles: a malfunction Nov. 27 that led to the digester contents foaming out of control.

“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. 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.

“In recent months, our neighbors have contended with periods of odor escaping our site. That is unacceptable to them, and it is unacceptable to us.

“We are cleaning out the digester and shutting down the operation until we can complete a full investigation of this latest incident and a comprehensive review of the digester. As we consider the future of this project, it is with the understanding that the waste-to-energy system cannot negatively impact our neighbors. If we determine that we cannot reliably run this system without subjecting the neighbors to off-site odors, it simply will not reopen.”

Currently, the biodigester is not in operation.

Burns said he does not expect the facility to resume operations, and he expects it will be dismantled in the future.

“I’ve been directed to work toward a path to dismantle it and have everything removed,” he said.

He said he isn’t sure what LL&P will do with the building afterward.

The project also was supposed to provide enough renewable energy to exceed LL&P’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requirement of 10 percent by 2015, which was a requirement of the 2008 Michigan Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act.

LL&P did not return calls for comment about the biodigester or how it will handle a renewable energy mandate without the facility.

Through a spokesperson, Northrup declined further comment at this time while the company figures out its next steps but said it will continue to address the matter.

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