City turns on methane energy at Back River plant

November 11, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,

With the push of a button, Baltimore set a course yesterday to save up to $2.4 million by using waste to treat waste.

Until yesterday morning, gas - mostly methane - produced at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in East Baltimore was vented and burned in 20-foot flares that could be seen miles away.

Now those flames have been extinguished. The gas will power a generator to produce 20 percent of the electricity the plant needs to operate - power that would otherwise have to be purchased at current high costs, said city officials at the activation ceremony of a cogeneration plant at the facility.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about methane produced at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant misstated the amount of energy that will be generated annually. The correct figure is 19.4 million kilowatt hours.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

It will also prevent 12.9 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, who pressed the button that started the generator and shut off the flames, said she recalled learning about the potential several years ago while she was City Council president.

"It's great to see it's now happening," she said. "The burden on Baltimore taxpayers has been diminished, and the air that we breathe will also be cleaner."

The contract with Johnson Controls Inc. for the Back River plant guarantees at least $1.4 million worth of energy savings, although the actual savings is about $2.4 million per year at current prices.

The savings will pay for the plant and other improvements - a total of $14 million - in seven years, said Mark Ramsay, project manager for Johnson Controls, which contracted with the city to maximize the energy efficiency of the Back River plant.

Don Albinger, vice president of renewable energy services for the Milwaukee-based company, said renewable energy projects such as this one should be encouraged, given rising power costs as well as the U.S. desire for energy independence.

"Renewable energy is part of our solution," he said.

The city is already using methane gas to save money at other locations. In 2006, the city agreed to sell methane from the Quarantine Road Landfill to the Coast Guard for $3 million over 15 years to heat and power a Curtis Bay shipyard about a mile away.

At the plant, about 1.7 million cubic feet of gas - 65 percent methane - is naturally produced. About 700,000 cubic feet was being used to heat the wastewater treatment facility. Now that gas will generate 19.4 kilowatt-hours of energy annually.

The generator produces about two megawatts of power on average and three megawatts at its peak, Ramsay said.

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