CLEVELAND, Ohio - A start-up company here that has grown from four employees to about 100 in just eight years has proven that green energy isn't just about wind and sunlight.
The new green is black for quasar energy group, a company that with federal and state assistance has developed the technology to generate electricity from every flush of your toilet and every scrap of food waste and grease sent down a drain.
quasar's success story starts with European technology, steadily improved by researchers at the Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster and refined almost daily by quasar and OARDC engineers at labs and offices located in the BioHio Energy Research Park on the campus.
Beginning in 2008 with a project at the City of Akron's wastewater treatment plant, quasar or its predecessor company has built 14 anaerobic digesters, which rely on animal and human intestinal bacteria working in an oxygen-free environment to generate "biogas" from the waste.
The company's newest business model -- locating quasar's technology inside a municipal wastewater treatment plant -- is beginning to smell like money. A lot of money.
There are thousands of older municipal plants in the nation that are under federal pressure to upgrade. quasar sees these plants as a tremendous growth opportunity for its business.
Thanks to breakthrough technology developed by OARDC biosystems engineer Yebo Li, quasar's digesters can more efficiently handle more solids than conventional wastewater treatments and other digesters.
Because of that extra digestive capacity, quasar's system can produce more biogas than other digesters and generates enough electricity to allow a municipal wastewater treatment plant to power itself -- while sending surplus power into a local electric utility's distribution system, says Mel Kurtz, president of the company.
"Three percent of power used in this country is used by wastewater treatment plants," he said in a recent interview at the company's Granger Road headquarters, just a few hundred yards from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District's E. 49th Street wastewater plant, which does not use quasar's technology.
If we converted bio solids with this technology [at every municipal plant] we could produce 12 percent of the total power sold in the nation," he exclaimed in the emphatic style of a man on a mission.
quasar's revenues were about $50 million in 2013. quasar's 14 existing digester facilities represent an investment of more than $100 million.
The company is currently negotiating to build additional projects at an estimated cost of $500 million, said Kurtz.
"We are in negotiations with publicly traded entities that want to build the industry bigger and faster and capitalize on the opportunity to provide affordable, renewable energy in the market place," he said.
One of those companies is Forest City Enterprises, Inc., which partnered with quasar to build a stand-alone plant in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood on land once part of former General Motors Fisher Body Plant.
"We have an active partnership with quasar that grew out of our desire to integrate renewable energy into our real estate," said Jeff Linton, senior vice president and spokesman for Forest City.
"The first project was with quasar was at Collinwood, The goal there was to try to offset some of the energy costs, but also to take a close look at how the business model worked."
quasar also received a boost because of recent changes in state energy policy.
Power generation with biogas was the only green technology to benefit from the recent utility-inspired attack on the state's green energy policies in the Ohio legislature.
Biogas generation and the energy sold -- whether it is electricity, the heat created by the gas-fired generator or just the gas itself -- now qualify for renewable energy credits that utilities can use to meet state rules.
As Kurtz sees it, Senate Bill 310 is the first step to allowing every municipal wastewater plant to cut its ties to a utility.
"For the first time, a different utility, not the electric utilities, but the waste water utilities, got the opportunity to be in the energy business," he said. "It's not just us, it's any wastwater treatment plant that is efficient enough."
Reminded that electric utilities are not likely to be passive in the face of competition from a rash of municipal wastewater power plants, Kurtz shot back, "Who said the objective was to perpetuate the longevity of our electric utilities?"
quasar this week marked its first project that is fully integrated into a wastewater treatment plant at the City of Wooster's facility with a daylong tour for wastewater engineers from other cities. About 200 attended.
Wooster's aging city plant had accumulated a number of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency violations and was facing a deadline to make major, multi-million-dollar improvements.
Built last year in just 14 weeks and in a shakedown operation for the last nine months, the quasar operation at the Wooster treatment plant generates 1 million watts of electricity, or 1 megawatt.
And it does it 24 hours a day, burning biogas in a modified 16-cylinder Caterpillar diesel to spin a generator. The plant's equipment uses about 600,000 watts.
quasar sends the other 40 percent of that electricity into the local distribution grid operated by American Electric Power's Ohio Power Co.
Joel Montgomery, engineer and director of administration for the city of Wooster, said quasar's equipment has all but eliminated the city's electric bill for the plant.
"Electricity was costing us over $200,000 a year," he said. "That has disappeared."
quasar's operation has also fixed an even larger problem. The city's half-century old digesters were no longer properly working, Montgomery explained.
"They were not digesting solids," he said "We were paying a half million to a million dollars a year to get rid of our sludge, to have it hauled away."
Because of the OARDC research enabling quasar's digesgters to handle more solids, the company accepts food waste trucked in from commercial food companies in the county as well as other municipal treatment plants -- food waste and sludge the old plant would not have been able to handle.
That extra capacity will enable Wooster to continue to grow, said Montgomery, without the municipal wastewater plant raising user fees. For example, Daisy Brand, the nation's largest sour cream manufacturer, is building a third production facility in Wooster.
quasar's three digester tanks with a combined capacity of 1.8 million gallons of thick slurry are producing so much biogas that some of it has to be flared, quasar intends to concentrate the methane in the gas and sell it as a motor vehicle fuel -- as compressed natural gas, or CNG. The company's goal is to include a CNG station at all of its projects.
The City of Wooster has already bought its first truck, factory-ready for after-market fuel injector modifications that will enable it to burn either CNG or gasoline.
Clemens Halene, an engineer and quasar's chief operating officer, said the company has an agreement with Dominion East Ohio to add the methane to Dominion's pipeline near the plant and withdraw it wherever the city and quasar decide to locate a CNG refueling station.
Halene, who designs quasar's equipment, as it is needed, said nearly every component is manufactured in Northeast Ohio and installed by quasar's own construction crews.
Those components include sophisticated sensors and microprocessors enabling plant operators to know at the front end of the digester the composition of the city's piped-in sludge and anything trucked into the plant.
"We absolutely have to know," said Halene. "This is just like making a cake. We know exactly the ingredients that come in. We basically measure the biology every day, and we know how much nitrogen, how much phosphorous, how many micro nutrients."
The material is "de-watered" and stored in a huge tank, allowing operators to inject a little at a time into each digester. The process creating the gas takes about 28 days.
At the back end of the plant, company engineers and crews have designed and installed a pilot operation to clean and purify what remains of the bio solids after the digester bacteria has worked on them.
The objective, said Halene, is to further dry and chemically refine the material, known as "digestate," to produce quality fertilizers high in nitrogen and phosphorous, leaving only water to send back into the wastewater treatment plant.
In the meantime, while that technology is being fully vetted at the site, quasar has been offering the digestate material to farmers under an agreement with a farm supply company to plow into fields as a fertilizer in the fall and early spring. The operation is called "land application."
The Ohio EPA is aware of the practice and has approved land application of quasar's digestate.
"We don't have any issues with the material," said EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce. "It does meet the Class B, bio-solids limits on pathogens and metal content. All the land application sites have to be approved by Ohio EPA. Each location has to be disclosed to Ohio EPA."
The same practice in upstate New York where quasar and Forest City have built two stand-alone digesters -- but which also accept wastewater treatment sludge -- has led to a firestorm of protest for about a year.
That backlash has occurred despite the company having first received permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is New York's environmental protection and regulatory agency.
Public opposition and fear about pathogens because some of the digester material started out as sewage sludge has been so fierce in some of the small towns that this week a lawyer retained by quasar hinted at legal action, according to local newspaper reports in those communities.
Ending the opposition in New York to spreading the material on farmland may ultimately have to wait until quasar's pilot at Wooster further purifies and distills the material into fertilizer, sending most of the water back into the treatment plant.
While not commenting on the New York state opposition, Halene said the industry would not be able to grow, especially in densely populated areas, if it were to continue to rely on spreading the digester material on farm fields, simply because of the cost of hauling the watery digestate material and because of the difficult finding sufficient acreage to absorb it.
"You can only make money or win the public over if you solve a problem," Halene said.