The Whitmer administration’s insistence on applying new regulations to the state’s largest commercial food waste digester means 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide is now going into the atmosphere.
The Fremont Regional Digester, which converts about 160,000 tons of mostly manufacturing food waste into enough electricity to power 3,500 homes per year, is shutting down over a years-long disagreement with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, WDIV reports.
All of the expired milk, energy drinks, baby food, jellies and juices that was converted into electricity and sold back to the grid will now “all just be stuck in a landfill and not used,” facility manager Leon Scott told the news site.
The problem centers on digestate, the nutrient-rich byproduct of the process of converting the food waste to biogas.
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Generate Upcycle, the San Francisco company that owns the regional digester, has operated under an agricultural use authorization since 2017 that allowed the company to spread the digestate on area farm fields. In 2021, EGLE told Generate Upcycle it would need a groundwater discharge permit instead because the digestate was considered liquid waste that requires more stringent regulations.
“Fundamentally, our material, our process, our product, is not something that the water resources croup has permitted before,” Dan Meccariello, Generate Upcycle’s vice president of operations, told WDIV. “We are very much a square peg in a sea of round holes.”
Generate Upcycle officials have argued the new legal requirements were designed for industrial pollutants, and urged the state to regulate the digestate as a fertilizer through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The company’s customers, including Gerber Products Co. and multiple waste management companies, submitted a letter of support in November, and bipartisan group of lawmakers followed up with a letter to EGLE Director Phil Roos in December, noting the closure will result in the loss of 17 full-time jobs.
“At a time when Michigan is progressing towards ambitious renewable energy standards, one would expect technology capable of converting waste to clean energy, while producing environmentally beneficial byproducts, to be welcomed rather than constrained,” lawmakers wrote.
“The 100,000 metric tons of CO2 (equivalent to burning 112 million pounds of coal) currently prevented from entering the atmosphere will no longer be captured. Additionally, the $25 million investment that Generate Upcycle … had planned for Michigan will disappear.”
So far, the Whitmer administration has refused to budge, insisting there’s no other alternative.
Generate Upcycle President Bill Caesar explained to Michigan Advance why that’s a deathblow for the company’s digester in Fremont.
“The new approach will require extensive changes in how, when and where we apply digestate, as well as forcing the farmer partners whose land we use to essentially become our subcontractors,” he said. “Not only are the proposed changes to our permit prohibitively expensive, because huge portions of the fields we currently use would be off limits, but these regulations are also operationally impossible for us to comply with.”
“I don’t think that we’re going to find a solution with the approach that EGLE has propositioned us with,” Caesar said. “I could continue with extensions, but it won’t solve the problem and I will have an unbounded financial risk.”
EGLE wrote in a statement to WDIV that while it’s “supportive of anaerobic digestion and the energy it produces,” the department “is also statutorily mandated to ensure that environmental and public health is protected when facilities land apply digestate on farm fields.”
EGLE cited risks to surface and groundwater from misapplied digestate, which can include algal blooms, excessive aquatic plant growth, and the potential for harmful materials to contaminate food.
Others lobbying lawmakers in Lansing are also opposed to digesters because they rely on fossil fuel infrastructure groups like Food and Water Watch want to eliminate. In a recent report, the nonprofit group argued the technology “necessitates extending the life of fossil fuel infrastructure, an intentional delay to a green transition.”
“We’re talking about building out infrastructure that will incentivize as much gas production as possible,” Christy McGillivray, political director for Sierra Club Michigan, told WDIV.
Scott, the facility manager in Fremont, has a different perspective.
“It’s green energy. It meets Michigan’s climate agenda 100 percent,” he told the news site. “But we can’t come to an agreement on how to management the byproduct. And that’s what’s heartbreaking.”
“What we’re being asked to do in Michigan is so different from every other location where we operate,” Caesar told the Advance. “While Michigan is a very special place, we don’t have any reason to believe that the management of the digestate needs to be so much different than what it is elsewhere.”