Hoping for a Green Renewal, Mich. City Will Turn Sewage to Fuel

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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

CHICAGO -- Flint, Mich., has been famously decimated by the devastation of the auto industry. Now, even as automotive fortunes look worse than ever, the city of 115,000 northwest of Detroit is seeking to recast itself as a hub of green transportation.

Starting with sewage.

The city and local Kettering University have teamed up with a Swedish company to turn Flint's municipal sewage into fuel for its bus fleet while reducing or ending the need to incinerate sewage sludge.

The company, Swedish Biogas International, received a $4 million grant from Michigan's Centers of Energy Excellence program to develop the biogas system, which officials hope will begin powering buses by next summer. Producing methane from sewage, landfills and manure is common in the United States, but the gas is more often burned onsite to produce electricity rather than compressed and purified for use by vehicles.

"You can get away from foreign energy dependence and you can produce energy with your own waste -- isn't that a marvelous thing?" said Stig Berglind, press counselor for the Swedish Embassy.

Flint's economic development director, Suzanne Kayser, sees the biogas project -- along with the factory that will make General Motors' Chevrolet Volt electric car, scheduled to open in Flint in 2010 -- as the future for a city that has been steadily bleeding population and jobs.

Said Kettering University President Stanley R. Liberty: "The future will be based on a science-and-technology economy. GM was a startup company; we need to go back 100 years and rediscover the entrepreneurial spirit that existed here.

"Alternative fuels are an important thing on the national agenda, something that absolutely has to be done," Liberty added, "and we can take the lead."

Many struggling Rust Belt cities are aiming to reinvent themselves with green technology based on their former industries. Toledo, for example, which saw its once-thriving glass industry decline, is now home to several factories that make "thin film" glass-based solar power cells, creating about 5,000 jobs.

Newton, Iowa, hard hit by the 2007 closing of a Maytag appliance factory, welcomed a wind turbine blade plant in September that promises 500 jobs. In Lackawanna, N.Y., the Steel Winds wind farm sits atop the old slag piles of a defunct steel mill.

In the 1960s, Flint built digesters to turn sewage into methane to power its sludge incinerator, but the unpurified gas corroded pipes, and the operation was shut down in the 1980s. The new biogas plant will be housed in the same buildings at the city's wastewater treatment plant. And the city is banking on Swedish technology and expertise for a better result this time.

In Sweden -- where high gasoline taxes forced investment in alternative fuels years ago -- buses, trains and 6 percent of private vehicles run on biogas made from sewage, restaurant and slaughterhouse waste, and other organic sources.


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