Pundits like to kick around big ideas about energy independence. But a grass-roots global movement of farmers, brewers, hospitals and schools is already building small eco-friendly power plants in their backyards, generating electricity from cheese whey, rice hulls, yeasty brewery water, and even discarded school lunches. They turn such waste into biogas and burn it inside GE’s omnivorous Jenbacher engines. The result is megawatts of cheaper, cleaner electricity for their businesses, or for sale back into the grid. “It’s a base load process, comparable to a coal-fired plant,” says Lauren Toretta, whose company CH4 Biogas operates a Jenbacher on a farm in upstate New York. “We run it all the time. It’s also a very big waste management technology.”
What Omnivore’s Dilemma? GE Jenbacher engines burn biogas from cheese whey, brewery waste, rice hulls and even old school lunches.
This week the movement picked up a new member. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver opened a $34 million plant burning gasified tree-trimmings and wood chips diverted from local landfills. Once again, the plant, built in partnership between GE and Nexterra Systems Corp., is using a Jenbacher gas engine from GE’s ecomagination portfolio. The engine generates enough heat and electricity to power 1,500 homes and supply up to 12 percent of UBC’s heat needs. It will reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent, the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road.
The UBC plant is a great example of the benefits offered by such localized power generation and combined heat and power systems, often called CHP. They help customers reduce their energy costs and boost their energy efficiency and independence. “Distributed” CHP plants placed strategically near users allow operators avoid transmission and distribution losses when power travels over the grid. They can also keep their lights on and machines humming when the grid loses power.