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

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.

Kettering Provost Michael Harris said biogas will cost significantly more to produce per gallon than gasoline, though it is still a viable undertaking for Flint because the city will eliminate the cost of burning sewage sludge, the solid waste left behind after water is extracted.

But Swedish Biogas President Peter Unden believes the Flint plant can produce biogas that is 20 percent less expensive than gasoline. "From our experience, I feel very confident we can produce biogas cheaply," he said. "Otherwise, it is difficult to introduce something new."

Leo Thomason, director of consulting and technical training for the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Institute, said turning the methane that comes from waste into the type of compressed gas needed for vehicles is an expensive process, and until now few companies or governments have considered it cost-effective.

"The question is, can you clean it up and compress it and then compete with gasoline?" he said. "It depends on the price of gasoline. The volume [from a sewage-treatment plant] is so small, it might be economically inefficient to recover it."

The Flint project is modeled on one in the Swedish city of Linkoping, where drivers who use biogas get free parking and do not have to pay tolls. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), whose paternal grandfather was Swedish, visited Sweden last fall in search of an alternative fuel technology to invest in. The U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Michael Wood, grew up in Flint and connected the governor with Swedish Biogas.

The company has been producing biogas since the 1950s and using it for vehicles since 1992, according to Unden. He said the Swedes are world leaders in biogas technology, which is more costly up front but ultimately more profitable.

"It depends if you're looking at the waste problem or at using biogas as a renewable resource," Unden said. "The mind-set is very different. We've been looking at it as an alternative fuel for a long time, so we've been able to develop technologies that make it more efficient."

Michigan's Centers of Energy Excellence program was launched by the state this summer to fund and foster alternative energy projects, including a cellulosic ethanol facility in the Upper Peninsula and lithium car battery research and manufacture by an Ann Arbor company.

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf ceremonially broke ground on the biogas plant in Flint on Sept. 26. The project will start small, fueling up to 30 buses and creating about 20 jobs. But city and state officials hope it can be a magnet for more alternative-fuel investment in Flint and a prototype for similar biogas projects around the nation.

Kettering University will convert the bus engines to run on biogas instead of gasoline, a fairly costly process. The engines will be able to burn natural gas or biogas; in Sweden cars with such engines are common on the private market.

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