Biogas waste-to-energy plant proposed for Jessup

An Italian company that operates waste-to-energy plants around the world plans to build its first U.S. facility in Jessup near dozens of food distribution businesses that could supply its fuel.

BTS Biogas established its North American headquarters in Columbia last fall and now hopes to break ground on a plant by the end of the year at the Maryland Food Center, a 400-acre area with about 50 produce and seafood merchants, food processors and distributors and other businesses.

BTS recycles organic waste and agricultural and food industry byproducts into electricity, thermal energy for heating and cooling, methane gas and organic fertilizers.

“It’s taking organic material that they were going to throw away … and putting it in a plant and making energy and fertilizer,” said Shawn Kreloff, executive director and CEO of the Americas for BTS.

BTS signed a lease for more than five acres on Oceano Avenue amid businesses that can supply organic waste for the plant and become potential customers of the renewable energy it will produce. The state Board of Public Works approved the lease earlier this month, and the company is now seeking permits from Howard County.

The plant would process 100,000 tons of organic material a year and employ 15 to 20 people. Last fall, Howard officials finalized a partnership with BTS that included bringing the headquarters to Columbia and committing to investing up to $40 million for two facilities in the county.

Businesses that otherwise would pay to ship waste to a landfill would pay a tipping fee to have it sent to the biogas plant and get discounts based on the cost of materials to be recycled. Businesses also would get a break on the energy supplied by the plant, said Donald J. Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority, the center’s developer.

“One of the biggest expenses that we deal with in the food industry is organic waste,” Darnall said. “There hasn't been a whole lot of success [with] composting facilities to manage the waste we generate. We end up having to put it in the waste disposal system.”

The American Biogas Council expects enormous growth in the industry and has identified more than 13,500 potential sites, including dairy and swine farms and thousands of water recovery facilities, where plants could produce enough power for 7.5 million homes.

The process, called anaerobic bio-digestion, breaks down natural food waste and other organic material in a sealed fermenter without air over 22 days. After processing, biogas is a renewable substitute for natural gas, while digested materials, liquid and solids, can be transformed into soil products, the biogas council says. Organic waste includes manure from dairies, sludge filtered from sewage water, municipal solid waste, food waste, yard clippings, crop residues and more, the council says on its website.

The council ranks Maryland 28th in the United States in methane production from biogas sources. The state has 25 operational systems with the potential for more than 38 biogas projects to be developed, according to the council.

BTS, based in South Tyrol, Italy, has built more than 200 biogas plants in the past decade in Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic. U.S.-based investor group Virtual Equity Partners led an investment in the company at the end of 2016 to launch a U.S. expansion.

“Geographically, we saw an opportunity here in the U.S. for this type of technology, and we went out and found what we thought is the best company in the world that does this,” said Kreloff, also a managing partner at Virtual Equity.

The investors saw Howard County as pro-business and environmentally conscious, he said, and were attracted by the concentration of food-related businesses within the Maryland Food Center and within a five-mile radius, where it counted about 100.

The Food Center Authority owns and operates the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market and the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market. It has sold or leased about 20 parcels over the years to food industry-related users. Under the terms of its lease with BTS, the company will not pay rent the first year while obtaining permits. In the second year, it will start paying $11,044 monthly.

Besides the rental income, the center expects to benefit by having a site in the center to dispose of waste at a reduced cost.

“We’re able to do our part to minimize what’s going into the waste stream and lower costs,” Darnall said.

The plant will require more waste than the food center can supply, but more area food industry companies could contribute as well, Darnall said. Once other companies are on board, BTS will come up with a waste stream “recipe” and determine what kind of bacteria to introduce to break it down.

Other companies have approached the center with similar waste-to-energy ideas but most also required funding, Darnall said. BTS did not.

“They’re self-sufficient,” he said.

BTS envisions building additional plants elsewhere in Maryland with concentrations of food processors or agriculture, such as Harford County or the Eastern Shore, Kreloff said.

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