quasar The Answer to Wastewater Woes
Writer: Steven Huszai
Publication: The Daily Record
A long and frustrating saga finally was resolved at the Wooster's wastewater treatment plant when quasar energy group started operations. And when City Council visited the Old Columbus Road plant in August, words like "excited" and "refreshing" were used for the first time in a long time. "quasar has been operating and producing electricity for the plant for about a month," said Joel Montgomery, director of administration for the city. "They have been taking all of the city's sludge for several months, and last month, they produced almost all of the electricity used at the plant."
But it took a bit of time to see light at the end of the tunnel. One of the city's chief hurdles for years has been its wastewater treatment plant. The issues were well-documented and fully revealed after the city hired Columbus-based environmental firm URS to conduct a capabilities study. The study was part of the agreement it negotiated with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in lieu of extensive fines.
In 2013, the city issued a request for proposal on its solids handling portion of the plant and received two proposals -- from quasar energy group and a joint venture between Agri-Sludge and Swedish Biogas. Montgomery said quasar's proposal was selected as the company proposed more product capacity and at a cheaper cost. The city was told by the Ohio EPA it needed to find a way to reduce solids in its effluent into the Killbuck Creek almost immediately after the 2007 upgrades to the plant were completed.
A chief issue has been sludge volumes. The city produces sludge as a by-product at both of its plants -- wastewater treatment and water. At the wastewater plant, sludge is produced from waste stream when it has been processed without oxygen. At the water plant, sludge is produced from lime and soda ash used to soften the city's water. "We want to be out of the solids business altogether," Montgomery has said repeatedly.
quasar, on the other hand, specializes in converting waste materials to energy and was the first company at the BioHio Research Park at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center campus. "One of our first targets is we have to be competitive in order for this to make sense," said Clemens Halene, chief operating officer at quasar. "We have to do a public service, we can't just do this because it's cool. ... I have to do what's right," since the facility would still be a municipal sewer plant owned by the city.
"The city has been essential for quasar to be in Wooster and build our first digester," referencing work to establish its home on Secrest Road. The city has three digesters that were not touched during the 2007 upgrades, Halene said, and all "definitely over 25 years old." These were upgraded to quasar's standards. "Think about what it would take if you rebuilt a 1970 Chevy and bring it up to speed," Halene said. "(Essentially) we will be using the existing shell but all different parts," he said of the digesters. And with the upgrades, the sewer plant's septage receiving system is online as it was designed. Wooster was never able to receive septage and process it (at a fee) for other municipalities since the plant was overloaded with its own solids. But Halene told the Rotary Club in January through the upgrades, quasar can now accept septage from other municipalities and process it in Wooster. quasar only uses 20 percent of the digester capacity on Wooster's waste stream. "Every day we're hauling (septage) in from Cleveland," he said, to process at quasar's operations in Wooster.
Equally as important, Wooster's plant has the capacity to allow for Daisy Brand to locate in town. quasar's company operations went online in October. The three digesters have a 1.8 million-gallon capacity using the city's solid waste stream as a foundation. In the past, when the city operated the plant it needed to have everything online just to keep solids in the plant. A single rain event could carry the solids into the effluent, and thereby cause noncompliance issues.
quasar has been able to get the waste stream solids down to 85 percent water, or 10 times stronger than what the city's sludge would look like. The city's sludge was 98 percent or 99 percent water typically, and therefore had no use. But now quasar's product, known as equate, is a valuable commercial-grade fertilizer. Halene said the company is working to establish itself in the agricultural sector. It has contracted with Town & Country Co-Op to market the product.
Halene said quasar is hoping to contract with AEP and sell electricity into the grid. Also, quasar agreed to supply the city plant with free electricity during average usage. The city averages roughly $35,000 per month on electricity at the plant. Even during peak times, the city will see reduced rates from quasar. Long term, quasar also hopes to use the gas to establish a compressed natural gas fueling station in Wooster.
"It's so refreshing to hear this," said Jon Ulbright, at large council member during the tour of the plant in August. "We've heard the promises before and have been let down ... the process we were sold didn't work out." The sewer plant has been in compliance ever since quasar started working. The city plans to upgrade its "wet stream" process, which had far less costs associated with the improvements.
The quasar project was estimated at $3 million-$4 million of the capital costs recommended by URS in its capacity study on the plant in order to bring it into compliance. The city will evaluate the biotower, built in 2011 and billed as a solution to the city's problems, once the quasar part of the fix is finished. But Montgomery said, "we will not be able to utilize the Biotower as it was intended, which is unfortunate." The city also contracted with a law firm to begin research into seeking damages from the 2007 sewer plant fix.