The big blue tanks that loom over a muddy construction site in north Charlotte will soon devour food waste to fuel the city’s newest power plant.
Blue Sphere Corp., which recently located its headquarters in Charlotte, is completing the $27 million facility off North Graham Street. Operations are expected to start in March, with full production about two months later.
The blue tanks are called anaerobic digesters. Inside, microorganisms in the oxygen-free systems will break down organic wastes from grocery stores, food processors and restaurant grease traps.
The process produces a fuel called biogas, which can be used to generate heat and electricity.
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Blue Sphere’s three generators can produce 5.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 2,500 homes. The power will be sold to Duke Energy under a 15-year contract.
The Charlotte plant is part of a new wave of interest in turning organic matter that once would have gone to landfills, broadly called biomass, into energy.
The plant will be able to process 156,000 tons of non-animal waste a year and will run around the clock.
“This is the future landfill, guys,” CEO Shlomi Palas told a group of investors touring the site this week.
Mecklenburg County businesses and homes produce at least 175,000 tons of food waste a year, according to a 2012 report, with three-fourths of it dumped in landfills. Three local companies make compost from it.
ReVenture Park, an “eco-industrial” project under development in western Mecklenburg County, has two plants that generate heat and electricity from methane gas harvested from a landfill.
South of Charlotte, Chester County, S.C., appears to be close to landing a $1.6 billion biomass project. Reports have said the plant will make diesel fuel out of wood and other plant matter and could employ 1,400 people.
In addition to the Charlotte project, Blue Sphere is building a smaller waste-to-energy plant in Rhode Island; in December, it bought four operating biogas plants in Italy.
“We believe there is a virtually endless supply of waste suitable for such projects and the demand for energy (particularly from such projects) is growing every year,” the company said in a securities filing.
The company co-owns the Charlotte plant with York Capital Management. The companies took over the project from Orbit Energy in 2015.
“We just looked for an opportunity, and this was an opportunity,” Palas said.
The building in which incoming trucks will unload their waste will run with negative air pressure to capture odors, Blue Sphere said.
Waste heat from the generators will be used to warm the digesters and dry nutrient-rich solids that will be sold as soil amendments.
An on-site wastewater treatment plant will remove contaminants before it is piped into Charlotte Water’s sewer system.
If the potential in such projects is growing, they’re also not easy to launch. Blue Sphere had net losses of more than $7 million in 2014 and 2015, according to the company’s annual report filed this month.