Sowing seeds, reaping energy with Harvest Power

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

If you are interested in learning more about organics management, its growing role in the renewable energy field, particularly in North America, as well as compost and how they are all intertwined, give a listen to my conversation this week with Paul Sellew, CEO of Harvest Power. We spoke of how Harvest Power is blazing the trail in creating a viable renewable energy option fed by leaves, grass, brush, and food leftovers (think pizza crusts) and is focusing on community in the process.

Harvest Power is a clean technology company based in Waltham, MA whose vision is to put organic materials to their highest and best use and redistribute the resources back into society in useable forms of renewable energy and high-quality soil products. They are also very importantly, and as Paul points out, lowering the costs for consumers.

How? Through a technology called anaerobic digestion, a process that is referred to as biomimetic, in which leaves, grass, brush, and food waste are put through anaerobic digesters (or airtight chambers) and microorganisms not only break down the organic materials, they capture biogases such as methane. The biogas is then taken and electricity or thermal energy is created. Additionally, if CO2 is stripped out, natural gas is created. What is more, this organic material ultimately ends up as rich compost that is reintroduced in the topsoil where our food is grown. Nothing is wasted.

Paul SellewIn North America, the business of organics management is relatively nascent at this stage. But Paul foresees it taking a similar trajectory as the composting industry, which 25 years ago (when Paul started out in the organics management), boasted roughly 300 composting facilities. Now there are thousands.

Communities in North America are slowly but surely embracing separation of organics from the waste stream. This is in part because it costs municipalities less to repurpose these organic materials through the anaerobic digestive process rather than sending them off to landfills. But they are paying attention to the obvious environmental benefits as well and outliers continue to pop up and set precedent. We don't, for instance, often think of our leftovers as a potential fuel source. But we are learning.

Paul brought up some smart legislation that recently passed in CT whereby if there is an organics processing facility that is permitted by state to accept food residuals within a certain mile radius, all food waste generators are bound to send their materials to this facility. What makes it smart is that it doesn't require a mandate when there is no infrastructure in place. Enter Harvest Power to remedy that.

And then there is Germany. Here are some amazing facts: Last year alone, Germany built 1,000 anaerobic digesters adding to their already existing 7,000. Another interesting fact. If you add up all energy from solar (they have the largest installed photovoltaic base in the world) and wind (they have 4th largest installed wind base), that's still just one-third of how much renewable energy is made from organic materials in Germany's biogas plants, anaerobic digester plants, and other uses of organic materials. So it can be and is being done.

And it's making a difference for communities. Everything is local -- the food leftovers waste, the digesters, and the energy being produced and used. What it more, the compost that is generated as part of the anaerobic digestive process goes back into the local soil.

The community part of the business is very important to Paul and integral to the mission of Harvest Power. Paul describes it as this.

"When we come into a community, you need to have stakeholders involved. People need to know there are higher uses for this food. People are part of the infrastructure and (will learn that) waste can be repurposed and build stronger communities at the same time. As we continue, what we do has to be done well at a local level and ultimately that is how we will be judged as a company."

George Papoulias edited this podcast.

Photos courtesy of Harvest Power.