Strategic Initiative Coordinator for Madison’s Streets Division, George Dreckmann has been trying to figure out a way to turn the city’s waste into energy for the past 30 years.
However, as Mayor Paul Soglin’s 2015 capital budget nears its final stages, Madison’s biodigester project, may face another setback.
“I’ve been looking and trying to figure out something to do with food waste since I came on board back in 1989,” Dreckmann said. “About six years ago it came to our attention that this anaerobic digestion process had a great deal of promise.”
The biodigester works by breaking down organic material, usually food waste and compost, by sealing it a chamber and allowing bacteria to consume the waste over the course of four weeks.
The breakdown of the waste produces methane gas, or biogas, as a byproduct, which is captured into a storage bag and can be used to power a generator, compressed into an alternative to diesel fuel or put into the natural gas pipeline.
A pilot program to test the process began in 2011, comprising of 500 households and six businesses who have been separating their waste and sending it to a compost waste facility in Columbia county. After that facility closed, the waste was taken to a biodigester at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said the pilot program was considered a success by the participants, who came to voice their discontent at a City Council meeting Tuesday, after the program was recently discontinued.
Verveer said the pilot was halted because Madison’s own biodigester will not be a feasible purchase for a few years now.
However, he said the “distraught” participants will soon get to see the program revived after the council voted to purchase a plastic filter to improve separation of plastics before being transported to UW-Oshkosh.
“I would say that, by virtue of the vote at the last council meeting to purchase the filter for the materials for our current program,” Verveer said. “I would say it shows there is a tremendous amount of support in the city council for the organics collection program.”
As for Madison’s biodigester, Dreckmann said cost still is the prohibiting factor.
The facility itself is estimated to cost roughly $17 million, Dreckmann said, but variable costs for things, such as transportation and collection vehicles, are harder to calculate. In addition, the biodigester demands special storage tanks for the natural gas it produces, making the cost prediction harder than if it were just an ordinary building estimated on a cost per square foot basis.
“This isn’t a building,” Dreckmann said. This is a system.”
Rather than a 2015 start date, Soglin’s budget has pushed back the construction date to 2017.
Dreckmann said he hopes this date will stick, assuming the city remains convinced that funds will still be available.
While he is disappointed with another delay for the biodigester, Dreckmann said he understands the realities of such a large public project.
“Bigger public works just aren’t that sexy,” Dreckmann said. “It’s not as much fun as cutting a ribbon for a police station or a neighborhood center. That’s just the way it is.”