• Food Waste
  • Biogas
  • Smart Waste
  • Energy Technologies
  • Energy Technologies

Discarding Food Is a Wasted Energy Opportunity

Krystal Maxwell
May 05, 2016

Corn biofuel

Food waste in the United States has been a growing problem. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of food produced worldwide—roughly 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted each year. Annual food loses and waste totals approximately $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries.

Last year, John Oliver spotlighted the issue on his HBO series, Last Week Tonight. Oliver focused the episode on Americans not discriminating against abnormally shaped fruits and vegetables, not being as picky with expiration dates, and donating more food. While the episode provided one take on a solution to this issue (along with added wit and humor), the Heartland Biogas Project is looking at food waste in a completely different light.

The Heartland Biogas Project

The Heartland Biogas Project, along with Heartland Renewable Energy, LLC, was acquired in September 2013 by EDF Renewable Energy. The project, located in Weld County, Colorado near the small town of LaSalle, will be taking food waste and transforming it into electricity through anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion—meaning digestion without oxygen—is the process by which organic materials, such as discarded food and plants, decompose while solid waste (used for composting) and methane gas are emitted. The methane gas is then sent to an interstate pipeline and used to generate electricity. Without using this methane to generate electricity, the gas would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, adding to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Burning methane rather than letting it escape creates much lower amounts of GHG emissions in the form of CO. The global warming potential for methane, a potent GHG, is 25 times greater than for CO.

A Viable Option?

The United States has over 2,100 sites producing biogas split between 247 anaerobic digesters on farms, 1,241 wastewater treatment plants (of which roughly 860 use the biogas they produce), 38 standalone (non-agriculture and non-wastewater) digesters, and 645 landfill gas projects. The American Biogas Council estimates that there are almost 11,000 sites with strong biogas development potential. The United States has a low number of digesters compared to Europe, which currently operates over 10,000, a quantity that allows some communities to be virtually fossil fuel free.

While food waste can be reduced in many ways, existing food waste can be used to create electricity. The American Biogas Council believes that if potential digester sites were fully utilized, the systems could produce enough energy to power 3.5 million homes in the United States and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing over 800,000 vehicles from the road.

So why are there not more anaerobic digesters if they create these benefits? In Europe, increased energy prices and government incentives have helped spur this market. However, similar incentives are not available in the United States, and the high cost and level of work needed to maintain the sites reduces interest. Perhaps the Heartland Biogas Project can streamline the process and work to effectively reduce operating costs and challenges in order to increase interest in and development of additional anaerobic digesters in the United States.