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Santa Barbara Aims to Grease the Path to Energy Savings

Project calls for converting discarded restaurant fats, oils and grease into fuel for El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant

Food scraps and grease, byproducts of just about every restaurant operation in town, may get a second life if a new project at Santa Barbara’s El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant secures the grants it needs to move forward.

The project would take fats, oils and grease, and use the brown grease and food scraps, and deposit them in the treatment plant’s anaerobic digester. As the material starts to decompose, methane gas is released as a byproduct and can be harnessed for energy. In theory, that energy would be captured and converted into electrical energy by a micro turbine or a fuel cell, and used to power the treatment plant, 520 E. Yanonali St.

John Schoof, the city’s wastewater system manager, said the project would be a good business decision, because of the energy costs saved. With more than 350 restaurants in the area, grease and food scraps are a resource in abundance, Schoof said.

“Grease is being hauled to places as far as Fresno for disposal,” he said, transportation that increases the city’s carbon footprint. “The idea is to take these two products that are thrown away, reduce truck trips, and turn them into energy that we consume at the plant or put back on the grid.”

Schoof said adding the grease actually speeds up the digestion process. Another benefit of the process is that it produces biosolids, which can then be dried and used as compost.

He said early estimates could have the project producing as much as 500 kilowatts of electrical power. That energy would supplement a hydrogen cell or micro turbine that would create power for the plant, and the electricity produced by the project would replace the traditional electric power that currently runs the rest of the facility.

The city would pay $1.2 million in capital investment for the project, and ideally, the grants would make up the difference for the project. Schoof said it will take about six years for the project to pay for itself. The city has also conducted the first draft of feasibility study, which will cover things like the site location and the permits needed for the project.

The city approved the submission for the grants’ application March 17, and has submitted application for a state grant, as well as for federal stimulus money, which is intended to boost the economy by funding public infrastructure projects.

Waste water grant applications must be reviewed by the State Water Resources Control Board and the application must be unique to wastewater projects. Although competition is high for limited state resources, Schoof said the application has already been submitted and he feels the project has a high probability of being awarded the grant. The city should know by the end of April about the state grant, he said, and has yet to hear when the recipients of the federal stimulus money will be announced.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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