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Shawn Kreloff, founder and CEO of Annapolis, Maryland-based Bioenergy Devco, was introduced to the concept of anaerobic digestion (AD) as a waste solution while working in Europe in the 1990s. During time spent in Germany, where Kreloff says the technology first got its start, he came across an AD facility while driving and curiosity got the best of him.

“I was driving down the road and saw this kind of strange tank with bubbles on top,” Kreloff says. “I pulled over, and there happened to be two [employees of the facility] there who spoke English. I asked, ‘What am I looking at here,’ and they gave me a tour. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with this industry.”

After returning to the U.S., Kreloff continued to keep an eye on the technology overseas. His passion for expanding the newfound organics recycling solution ultimately pushed him to develop AD facilities, focusing primarily on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Historically, eastern Maryland has faced water quality issues within the Chesapeake Bay due to runoff from organic material at nearby poultry farms, which is a major industry in the area.

The hunt began to find the best AD technology to start his business, and, during the pursuit, Kreloff was introduced to the company BTS Biogas (BTS)—a European pioneer in the field of anaerobic digestion for 20 years. After a series of conversations, Kreloff ultimately acquired BTS in August 2019 with the goal of increasing Bioenergy Devco’s technology footprint in North America.

“BTS, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of [Bioenergy Devco] and has been for about four years now, is … a global leader in anaerobic digestion. They’ve built over 250 plants in seven counties and operate roughly 140 plants,” Kreloff says.

Overcoming obstacles

As an early adopter of AD technology in the U.S., Kreloff says Bioenergy Devco has run into many challenges while navigating the operation of large-scale anaerobic digesters on a global playing field.

He says he faced two particular issues early on: “getting people to really understand the technology and getting them to overcome [misconceptions] about the technology if they had heard negative things about it, especially associated with mixed food waste and food waste digesters.”

Kreloff adds, “I wanted to bring all of our technology, our development experience and our financial experience under one roof.”

Bioenergy Devco has continued expanding its operations to better serve the communities where its facilities are located, drawing from its wealth of AD expertise. In July 2021, the company announced it had received a $460,000 grant from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to support the development of what it calls the largest anaerobic digester in Maryland to help curb solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.

The nearly complete AD facility—known as the Maryland Food Center Authority—is located in Jessup and will be able to process 115,000 tons of organics annually. The facility will use microbes to process the organic material and convert it to natural gas, producing approximately 265,000 metric million Btu of renewable natural gas (RNG) annually for use in Baltimore Gas and Electric’s (BGE’s) pipeline, which is enough to power the equivalent of nearly 5,000 homes’ annual usage.

“The new facility [is located near] the Maryland Food Center, which is basically the produce and seafood markets for both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore,” Kreloff says. “Within a 5-mile radius of this great piece of land we found, there’s a hundred different food processors and distributors.”

Photo courtesy of Bioenergy Devco

Assimilating RNG

While the sheer scale of the Jessup facility has drawn significant attention to AD technology, it also marks the first time RNG will be allowed on a public utility system in Maryland.

Through an interconnection agreement the Maryland Public Service Commission granted in August 2021, BGE will extend its main pipeline to connect to Bioenergy Devco’s site located a quarter-mile away to directly channel biogas into its distribution system.

To produce utility-grade RNG, however, Kreloff says the company must take steps to create clean biogas that reaches BGE’s standards. “The main product that BGE is interested in, the natural gas, is methane. It’s almost pure methane. So, we have to make sure it’s cleaned up to [meet] their requirements to put in their pipelines. That was really the only hurdle we had was interconnection and making sure we could meet or exceed their standards, which we have.”

Kreloff says Bioenergy Devco employs a method similar to reverse osmosis to separate carbon dioxide from the methane in its biogas. “We’re using membranes to separate out the carbon dioxide from the methane because methane is a much smaller molecule due to it being mostly hydrogen,” he notes.

Kreloff adds that tanks at the facility are already being “seated and heated,” and full operations are anticipated to begin in the first quarter of this year.

“The organic material will start coming in April, and the tank should be fully operational and ramped up by June.”

As progress on the Jessup plant moves forward, Kreloff says he hopes the facility can serve as a model for waste-to-RNG projects in the future.

“We wanted to build this plant here in Maryland in a great location as a showcase facility,” he says. “There’s been a lot of interest from other companies, as well as states and municipalities, to see what we’re doing.”

Kreloff adds, “We throw away over 103 million tons of organic material a year in this country and ... each one of our plants processes roughly 100,000 tons. In Germany, there’s almost 9,000 of these plants. So, it gives you kind of an idea of the scale of this in Europe. But, with that said, it’s something we could replicate here in the U.S. and, by doing that, help our air, water and soil quality all at the same time.”

The author is assistant editor for Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.