New York City has entered a new frontier of sustainability: turning food and human waste into energy that will heat our homes and businesses.

And it is all going to happen in eight, enormous space-age eggs in Brooklyn.

The city announced yesterday that it has partnered with Waste Management, Inc. and National Grid to harness the methane that is generated at its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and convert it into “pipeline ready” fuel. The three-year pilot project has the potential to reduce New York City’s carbon emissions by more than 90,000 metric tons annually, comparable to taking 19,000 cars off the road, city officials said.

Making Gas

At a tour of the facility yesterday with the city and its private sector partners, Newtown Creek plant manager Jim Pynn explained that bio-gas, which is mainly methane, is a standard by-product of the wastewater treatment process. How is bio-gas generated? By cooking the waste, essentially.

At the Newtown Creek plant in North Brooklyn, the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility, human and other types of organic waste undergo a series of processes which produce a sludge.

The sludge is then heated to at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 days in the plant’s immediately recognizable “digester eggs.” The heating of the sludge generates the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which consume much of the organic material. That “digestion” process produces water, carbon dioxide and bio-gas.

How much gas can New York City residents generate?

Quite a bit apparently. The Newtown Creek plant accepts wastewater from more than 1 million New Yorkers across sections of Manhattan, western Queens and North Brooklyn. Every year, the plant produces more than 500 million cubic feet of bio-gas. The city is able to use about 40 percent of that gas on-site. The rest is lost to the atmosphere by flaring.

But no more—the remaining 60 percent of the bio-gas produced at the Newtown plant will be purified at a facility to be built there by National Grid, rendering it “pipeline quality renewable natural gas.”

And the city plans to increase bio-gas production at Newtown by adding pre-processed organic food waste to the wastewater sludge. The food waste will come from public schools and farmers’ markets that are currently participating in the city’s pilot organics recycling program.

In addition to the 100,000 households in neighborhoods across the city who have been incorporated into the city’s organics recycling initiative, private businesses will also start to recycle food waste. The City Council passed legislation yesterday requiring food establishments beyond a certain size, like catering companies and chain restaurants, to recycle their organic waste beginning July, 2015.

Waste Management, Inc. has established what they describe as “one of New York City’s first non-composting organics recycling facilities,” which will process some of the city’s organic food waste for use at the Newtown Creek plant.

The gas produced at Newtown –enough to heat 5,200 homes- will be injected into National Grid’s distribution network. “There is no other project like this in the country,” said National Grid New York president Ken Daly. “[It’s] the same energy that our customers are using right now, the difference is that it’s renewable,” he added.

National Grid will finance construction of the purification system, and the Department of Environmental Protection will supply the bio-gas free-of-charge, at least initially. Once project costs have been covered, profits from the sale of the gas will be split between the DEP and National Grid customers, the city said.

Construction of the purification system should be finished by 2015.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of one pilot project at one waste treatment center is striking. For one thing, reducing the city’s waste stream means reducing New York City’s impact on the climate.

If the pilot proves successful, up to 153,000 tons of organic food waste could be processed annually at Newtown.

The city says diverting that quantity of food waste from landfills will reduce New York City’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by over 50,000 metric tons. Thirty-five percent of the city’s total residential waste stream is organic waste.

A reduction of another 32,000 tons of emissions will come from using the bio-gas, which is completely renewable, as opposed to natural gas that is extracted. Additional emissions reductions will occur because hundreds of thousands of miles of truck trips to landfills will be eliminated.

The city says that it is currently more than half-way toward its goal of a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases citywide by 2030.

Could New York City eventually turn all of its organic food waste into fuel? Ron Gonen, the city’ deputy commissioner for recycling, said yesterday that “multiple solutions will be required” to divert the enormous volume of food waste produced daily in homes and businesses from landfills. What is happening at Newtown Creek is the “top of the pyramid,” Gonen added.

Turning waste into energy is a revolutionary step in New York City’s evolution as a city, noted Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty. “[The] old approach [was] to take something and bury it. This is truly a complete loop.”

“If this works, [it] would be a massive financial and environmental opportunity for New York City,” said Gonen.