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Under NJ Energy Plan, Does Sewage Sludge Qualify as a Renewable Fuel?

Camden County contracts to convert 60,000 tons of sewage into dried biosolids that can be burnt instead of coal.

It probably will not be embraced by environmentalists, but some folks are promoting sewage sludge as a renewable fuel. It fits that definition, according to a Houston-based firm that helps sewerage authorities manage the waste they produce from processing millions of gallons of sewage.

Synagro Technologies recently won contract approval from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs for a ten-year, $28 million contract with the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority to begin converting the 60,000 tons of sludge it generates annually into a product that can displace coal as a fuel source in an out-of-state generating plant.

"We have an opportunity to convert this waste source into something beneficial to residents," said Robert Montenegro, project developer for Camden at Synagro. He said the contract with the authority also will produce cost savings to customers.

The Christie Connection

Montenegro's view might be contrary to what some environmental groups say, but it meshes somewhat with a recommendation in the Christie administration draft Energy Master Plan, which called on the state to revisit the issue of whether the massive amounts of waste its residents and businesses produce are an "untapped resource" for producing electricity.

New Jersey produces more waste per capita than any other state, but only 17 percent of that waste is converted into energy by the state’s five municipal garbage incinerators, the plan noted. It suggested looking at developing appropriate incentives to encourage more generation of electricity from waste sources, although it does not specifically mention sewage sludge.

The sludge processed by Synagro at the Camden County facility will be dried and converted into a renewable fuel and burned to create energy and power manufacturing operations. During its first year of operation, Camden’s dried biosolids will be burned instead of more than 6,000 tons of coal. Substituting biosolids for coal will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 17,000 tons annually, according to the company.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was unimpressed. "To me, it’s very troubling," he said. Once a true renewable energy system is installed, it does not need to keep relying on a fuel, instead using free wind or solar energy, he said.

But Montenegro argued Synagro’s efforts fit "like a glove’" with the state's draft energy plan. He noted the company is technology-neutral when working with sewerage authorities on the best way to handle their biosolids, whether it involves incineration, landfilling, composting or other land applications.

"We have a cleaner burn with biosolids than you have with coal," according to Montenegro.

Prior to entering into the contract with Synagro, Camden County burned its sewage sludge in incinerators around the state, Montenegro said. The company serves more than 600 municipal and industrial water and wastewater facilities around the country.

"Synagro is an excellent partner for CCMUA because of its proven track record operating similar facilities nationwide," said Andrew Kricun, executive director of the authority. "Synagro’s efficient facility operation will allow the authority to minimize costs, and the clean, sustainable technology will significantly reduce facility odor potential and contribute to an improved quality of life for our neighbors."

Besides Camden, Synagro is working with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and the Joint Meetings of Essex and Union County to safely handle sludge generated from those facilities, among the biggest in the state.

As part of its contract, Synagro will annually donate up to $25,000 to Camden's civic, educational and philanthropic initiatives.

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