Biogenic energy

Online Editor

Jackie Bliss details a project in Philadelphia that’s turning French fries into fuel 

Have you ever heard of a ‘fatberg’? Fatbergs are giant masses of coagulated waste oil, fats, wet wipes and other detritus that form in sewers and clog water systems, resulting in loss of service and major sanitation issues. Just recently, crews had to break up and remove a 300-ton fatberg that had backed up a sewer in Birmingham, UK. Once fatbergs form, it takes days and use of heavy industrial equipment to break them up and dispose of them. The best way to fight fatbergs is to prevent them from ever forming to begin with, which requires responsible disposal of the “fat” that becomes the “berg.”

At the same time, there’s another problem plaguing our cities that is likely much more familiar: climate change as a result of high carbon emissions. Burning conventional fossil fuel oil has an increasingly harmful impact on our environment, and the energy industry (and all industry) must take responsible measures to decrease carbon emissions to right our course.

A green solution

In early 2020, Vicinity Energy and Lifecycle Renewables teamed up to find a solution to both problems. As owner and operator of district energy systems in several major U.S. cities, Vicinity produces and distributes steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 230 million square feet of building space (nearly eight square miles) via a network of underground pipes. Now, in partnership with Lifecycle Renewables, Vicinity will begin to integrate LR100, a biogenic fuel derived from waste vegetable oil and fats discarded by the food service industry, into its fuel mix. This has already begun in Philadelphia and will be expanded across each of Vicinity’s facilities in over a dozen U.S. cities over time. A truly circular solution, the wastes discarded by Philadelphia’s local food service industry will now be used to heat and cool businesses and institutions in the same city.

Vicinity and Lifecycle are collecting grease that is normally an expensive problem to mitigate and an environmental risk for cities and putting it to productive use. This also saves restaurants money on disposal fees, which is a huge benefit especially during this time when many are still struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, LR100 is a carbon-neutral fuel, and thus helps reduce Philadelphia’s carbon footprint.

Benefits of the programme include:

●          Cutting carbon emissions by 12,200 tons, or the equivalent of removing 2,650 cars from Philadelphia’s roads each year

●          Recycling 600,000 gallons of food service industry waste oil (the average person consumes approximately 1.5 gallons of oil a year) into energy, which would otherwise be discarded in landfills or city sewers

●          Expanding Lifecycle Renewables’ operations in Philadelphia, resulting in job creation, recycling programs and cost savings for local restaurants, and sustainability benefits for the community

●          Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 80% versus distillate fuel, improving local air quality through reductions in nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and particulate emissions compared to traditional heavy fuel oils

District energy as a force multiplier

Part of the reason this solution is so effective is because of the way district energy works. District energy involves generating thermal energy at a central facility, and then distributing that energy - in the form of steam, hot water, or chilled water - to nearby buildings via robust underground pipes. That means that when the central facility undergoes an upgrade (with a biogenic fuel source, for example), all buildings connected to the district immediately receive the carbon reduction benefits. For an individual building to green, often it requires investment in energy efficiency projects, new equipment, or retrofits of existing infrastructure. District energy systems can apply carbon reduction benefits to all of the buildings connected to the system, at once. In this case, there were only very minor infrastructure updates required at Vicinity’s central facility to incorporate LR100, so there was no change to customers in terms of cost or reliability associated with this greening effort.

Future potential

Since the Philadelphia rollout has been so successful, the next step is to expand the programme to other districts in other cities, with Boston next on the list for implementation. There’s no limit to where the solution could be implemented. Vicinity operates in more than a dozen U.S. cities, and through our biogenic fuels use, all of them will benefit from cleaner air - and sewers.

Jackie Bliss is chief revenue officer at Vicinity Energy

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