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ON THE SCENE: Lake Placid teacher works on biodigester

March 6, 2014
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Lake Placid is about to go green in a big, big way. Imagine all the compostable waste in town - all the food scraps from the schools, restaurants, hotels, and people's homes along with grass cuttings and even the olive oil-stained papers from pizza parlors - ending up in a giant stomach, and you can picture the essence of what Lake Placid High School science teacher Tammy Morgan has in mind for the community.

It's called a biodigester and will be the first community-scaled project of its kind in the nation thanks to a recent grant made to the town by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority through the Adirondack North Country Association.

"I was working as a bioenergy bioproduct National Education Project Fellow in 2011," said Tammy Morgan. "That was a program sponsored by the USDA to create lesson plans for schools across America dealing with a stem focus that addressed bioenergy or bioproducts. I went through a week-long teacher-training course just to get familiar with the vocabulary involved. One of the key elements of that program was whole-systems thinking, the way we produce something or take care of a resource from cradle to grave, from the beginning to the end. I had to come up with a project idea that fit that criteria and then work on it for the next 10 weeks.

Article Photos

Lake Placid High School science teacher Tammy Morgan (Photo — Naj Wikoff)

"The other required element was sustainability. It had to be good, not only for today, but for the foreseeable future, and the benefits had to serve both society and the economy. I am not sure how I started thinking about garbage, but I did. We were asked to close our eyes and think about one thing that really bothers us about our community or area. I started off thinking about food production, gardening at home and at school, and thinking about how poor our soil is - so poor that we have to bring in compost and other things to supplement the soil."

Morgan realized that many local farmers went to Vermont to purchase composted soil supplements, as they were not available locally. She started thinking of the time, energy and cost savings if the supplements could be produced from the restaurant food waste that currently gets dumped in landfills.

"That's where the tie-in to the garbage came from," she said. "When I found out how far away the landfills were, I wondered why are we shipping it so far away? Why aren't we dealing with it here locally? The more and more I thought about it, the more and more I became obsessed with the idea of taking the organic waste material in Lake Placid and the surrounding region and getting both the nutrient and the energy value out of it. When you look at the nutrient piece, composting sounds like a great idea, but it takes a lot of energy to compost. You have to aerate the pile, and some things don't compost very well, such as meats, oils and fishes. So when I realized that, I started looking into anaerobic digestion, the chemical breakdown of organic materials in an oxygen-depleted environment.

"A biodigester works like one's stomach. It's a place where food is broken down by bacteria sans air, hence the name. When you do that, you end up with a gas (methane), heat, and a fertilizer-nutrient component. I thought, 'Wow, if we could do that we could keep all the energy and the nutrients here, sell the produce products on the market, and save a lot of energy and related costs of shipping our food waste away.' So that's where the whole system and sustainability tied together for me. Next I had to come up with a case study and educational materials. I looked at the numbers in the region so I could come up with some math that students could work on in the classroom. When I started looking at the numbers I thought, 'Wow, this could be more than an education project. This could work!'"

Following her fellowship, Morgan kept at developing the idea assisted by her students and a lot of other people, including the engineers from the fellowship project, Casella Waste Systems in Plattsburgh, Earth Science out of Willsboro, Derek Doty and Bob Miller from the North Elba Town Council, and town Supervisor Roby Politi, among others.

Biodigestors do exist but are used only on farms. What's different with the Lake Placid model as envisioned by Morgan is that it will be using primarily source-separated food waste from a community - the first such digester in the nation used at that scale and for that purpose. The food waste can be anything that can be processed by a digester including napkins, paper towels, and other papers like pizza boxes that don't go into a zero-sort facility. The energy value coming out of food going through a digester is much higher than manure that has already been digested by the animal, thus its gas, liquid and solid byproducts have an extremely high nutrient/energy yield and value.

In 2012, NYSERDA, through Gov. Cuomo, started Cleaner Greener Communities. Each of the regional economic development councils was tasked with writing a sustainability plan, which ANCA co-wrote for the North Country council. Six categories came out of the plan, one being materials management, and Morgan was invited to be a part of that planning group. Phase two was to propose and fund projects that met the criteria coming out of the planning process.

New York state set aside $90 million over three years for the Cleaner Greener Communities program, with a $25 million allotment for projects that had to meet a $1 million minimum and include a 25 percent match. While Morgan's project met the $1 million benchmark, it didn't meet the match, but ANCA was allowed to consolidate several projects into one application, the only such council to do so. NYSERDA was impressed by the project and the planning approach and awarded them a grant.

"We were the only group in New York state that did this in this particular way," said Jennifer Perry, of ANCA. "NYSERDA was impressed. They were looking for pilot projects that were innovative, featured out-of-the-box thinking, and could be replicated."

The biodigester is envisioned as a regional resource. Thus, Tupper Lake, Keene, Wilmington and Saranac Lake will be able to participate. An executive committee has been established, the operational model and business plan is being developed, and the plan is to locate the bio-digester at the North Elba Transfer Station in Lake Placid and have it operational by 2015. Morgan expects the community will able to receive and process 900 tons of food waste a year, which will generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 22 homes; save the town more than $50,000 a year; provide liquid fertilizer for the nearby athlete fields (a $4,000 savings in petroleum-based fertilizers currently used); make rich compost available for farmers and gardeners; and, being one-of-a-kind facility in the country, attract conventions and green tourism of educators, students, environmentalists, community waste managers and others who will want to come see it.

And that's just the beginning.

"The ripple effects will be enormous," said Morgan, already thinking of the hydronic greenhouse planned for phase two. Indeed.



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