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Inland Empire
Photo Credit: John Valenzuela

Human waste equates to money and power in Inland Empire agency’s sustainable energy bid

ONTARIO — Human waste is being turned into money and power in Ontario.

It’s a scenario that fuel cell industry researchers and supporters hope will continue to expand throughout the state as the government and industry continue the bid for more sustainable energy.

The Inland Empire Utilities Agency sewage treatment plant in Ontario is using a product from wastewater to power its operation. Specifically, the solid waste flowing in from surrounding cities is used to create methane gas, which, when added with water and heated, feeds into fuel cells which power 60 percent of the plant’s energy.

Emissions are carbon neutral, meaning the system doesn’t create harmful by-products into the atmosphere, officials said.

“What is provided is a stable power source separate from the Southern California Edison grid,” said Jason Marseille, senior operations assistant at IEUA. “Previously, the agency was using two internal combustion engines. The system here is so much more efficient and cleaner, and when I say cleaner the emissions coming from the system don’t have high levels of carbon monoxide.”

The methane gas, heated with water creates a positive and negative charge as hydrogen and carbonate react inside two large fuel cell units at the plant. Both generate about 2.8 megawatts of energy. That’s about 60 percent of the plant’s energy use at any given moment, with 15 percent coming from a large solar panel array, and the rest coming from Edison.

“I’m proud we actually took the opportunity to invest in new technology that sometimes are on the cutting edge,” said Joe Grindstaff, general manager for the IEUA, which is a major water provider in the Inland Empire.

The 3 megawatts of energy produced by the fuel cell system in Ontario, is part of a total 13 megawatts being produced by fuel cells in the state today, said Scott Samuelson, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center.

The technology has been around for the past 20 years, but it has only become feasible for large scale energy production in recent years. Samuelson said California is leading the rest of the nation in deployment of the technology. The center is calling for an increase of fuel cell energy production in the state to 5 gigawatts by 2025.

“Most of the deployment in California is operating on natural gas in other market segments such as hotels, hospitals, grocery stores, universities and the like.”

Fuel cell use is also growing in places like South Korea and Southeast Asia, he said.

With energy costs expected to rise in the coming years , IEUA hopes to be able to be off the electrical grid at peak hours by 2020, Grindstaff said.

The fuel cell system costs about $17 million, according to Scott Warfield, vice president of operations at Aenergia, a renewable energy company which owns the machines, and sells the energy to the agency.

Marseilles said energy costs today are comparable to what would have been spent if the fuels cells hadn’t been installed, but he added future cost increases with the fuel cell use annually are expected to be more stable than the rising cost of grid energy.

The wastewater treatment plant brings in 30 million gallons of wastewater from the surrounding cities of Ontario, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland and Montclair. The treated water — just about the same amount — is placed back into the Santa Ana River and Cucamonga Basin, or it’s diverted to recycled water pipes which irrigate the region’s landscaping, parks and golf courses.

The solid waste product is dried through a centrifugal process at the plant. It’s turned into a black coal-like material called “cake.” About 150 tons of cake is transported out of the plant daily and turned into compost fertilizer. ___

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