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North Elba to install biodigester in the fall
March 20, 2017

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LAKE PLACID - More than five years after Lake Placid High School science teacher Tammy Morgan first conceived the idea, the town of North Elba will install its biodigester later this year for use next spring.

The town is in the process of finalizing a four-year contract with the Clarkson University-based company Recovery Resourced Management LLC (RRM) to remotely monitor the biodigester, to be located at the town's recycling center and transfer station.

Finding a company to oversee and manage the biodigester was the final step in a long multi-year process for the town. It included Morgan's initial pitch of the idea to the town council more than five years ago. Subsequently, the town secured a $1.3 million grant to pay for the project through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and selected the Vermont-based vendor BIOFerm to build the biodigester.

Since August, the town council has worked with Stefan Grimberg, a Clarkson professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Clarkson graduate Brendan Lennox to come to terms on RRM overseeing the biodigester.

Speaking Friday, March 17, North Elba town councilman Bob Miller said Lennox and Grimberg have previous experience working daily with Clarkson's biodigester. Miller and fellow town councilman Derek Doty, who have worked on the project for several years, said the town will pay RRM $20,000 per year to oversee the biodigester.

"They came back to us and said they'd be happy to remotely monitor this and advise and provide support for repairs for really what is not a huge fee," Miller said.

The anaerobic digester will convert organic waste such as food scraps into renewable biogas for electricity, liquid fertilizer and compost. Miller said Friday that in subsequent years the biodigester may also heat a greenhouse.

Miller added that the town will be the first municipality in the country to have a biodigester for food waste, though many other private businesses such as farms use them already. Initially, he said the use of the biodigester will be limited to a finite number of local businesses, though the town plans to expand its use to businesses inside and outside of the town, as well as local residents.

The biodigester will be open three days a week year-round and Miller said Casella Waste Systems has said they'd retrofit their trucks to be able to accept canisters of food waste separate from other garbage local businesses provide.

"We will have to come up with certain kinds of rules for commercial vendors to participate," Miller said. "To make sure the food is properly sorted. There will be a protocol on how they are going to deliver the food waste to the facility. And we may end up passing a law requiring local businesses to separate food waste."

Town officials anticipate at least 30 different commercial businesses such as restaurants, hospitals and prisons will participate and also estimates 900 tons of food waste per year will be cycled through the biodigester, waste that otherwise would have gone to a landfill.

"And my guess is we will quickly outgrow the biodigester," Miller said, "because I think there is more of a need for this system than what we will be able to initially provide. It will be built in a way where we can build onto it later."

"I think you are going to start to see more and more places do this," he added. "Universities have them, small cities have them and I think RRM is looking at this as a beginning of a consulting business for them, that they can run biodigesters through northern New York.

Morgan said a $20,000 grant through the Rochester-based Pollution Prevention Control Institute has also been secured, adding that the funds would go toward her and her LPHS students conducting community outreach and education.

"To make this a successful program it will take the entire community," she said, "and the school is an important part of the community."

Morgan added that once the biodigester is operating, the school plans to conduct science experiments using the nutrients and liquid water from it and also plans to use some of the fertilizers in the school's garden.

The school's art classes also are currently submitting ideas for logos for the biodigester.

"We will be creating basically how-to manuals and videos and brochures that we can use to go to businesses to get businesses to sign on," Morgan said. "Because building it is just the beginning, the second part is filling it with food waste."

Miller stressed that the project could not have been completed without the cooperation and knowledge of Casella and the mechanical know-how of Doty. Miller credited his fellow town councilman with spotting potential problems with the design of the biodigester, such as a design draft initially void of heating coils.

Miller also credited Jen Perry of the Adirondack North Country Association with working with the town to alter the language of the grant to protect North Elba taxpayers considering the maiden nature of the municipal biodigester project.

The town plans to hire a part-time employee to help to manage the biodigester at the recycling center. Miller added that it will save the town $50,000 per year in tipping fees it currently pays a separate private company contracted through the county to haul the compost that will go into the biodigester. He also said the town estimates the electricity that will go back into the grid thanks to the biodigester will be minimal, but the town anticipates it will make $6,000 per year selling solid compost and $4,000 per year for the liquid compost.

"If those numbers pan out, we actually make money," Miller said. "But I'm guarded as we say that. If we come close to even, I think we should be happy, because the other benefits to this - less of a carbon footprint - hopefully it will be a model for rest of the state to handle food waste."

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