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Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of the presentation Sean Moen, general manager of Atlas Refuel, Sacramento, California, gave at the 2016 Renewable Energy from Waste Conference, Nov. 14-16, in Long Beach, California.

Atlas Refuel’s Sacramento, California, renewable natural gas project was North America’s first food-waste-to-transportation-fuel system. It was a big deal for us and the area—Sacramento County was a big motivating force behind it. It is a completely closed-loop system.

Sacramento is the farm-to-fork capital of the world. We’re trying to continue that loop by going straight from farm to your fork, then creating fuel. That fuel also is creating a liquid fertilizer, and some carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are part of a photosynthesis to create more food.

We’re generating natural gas and electricity on-site. We have boilers that work from the natural gas that we use to temperature control the anaerobic digestion (AD) system, and we also have electricity that can generate the whole site.

So, if there’s a nuclear disaster, I have some electricity if you need some.

PROCESS AND FLOW

A high-solids AD process takes place in four stages or four tanks. From there, we go to the sulfur treatment and then to the biocompressed natural gas (bioCNG) treatment. As part of that treating system, we have the tail gas that is generating the electricity to run all of the site and then renewable gas for transportation.

There’s a solids separation section that acts as a press—it squeezes all the liquids out. We needed to be able to commercialize that and compostable solids, too.

It was a much longer, bigger process for this project, not just how we get renewable fuels into transportation. In 2011, the county of Sacramento issued a request for qualification (RFQ) and a request for proposal (RFP) process.

The county looked at a largely under-used asset—an old transfer station, for an energy conversion project. When the county got paperwork together to get it done, it was thinking two or three years ahead of that internally. This means in 2008 or 2009, the county started thinking about what it wanted to do with this project.

When we submitted the RFP, there were eight different project partners. Three major partners out of those eight include Atlas Disposal, Clean World Partners and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

Atlas Disposal, a local hauler, started transporting organic waste in 2011. We started with CNG trucks in 2009—the first in the area to do so. We are small. We are local. We don’t own landfills, and we operate within the footprint of Sacramento County, so we had to get innovative and smart about what we had to do.

The highest and best use for organic waste can come in a variety of ways. We can use it for compost, animal feed—some really good producers out there were using watermelon juice, and pigs and cows would love the rinds—but is that the right thing to do? Is it the best use?

Clean World Partners, a Sacramento-area small start-up company that has licensed home-grown, regionally developed technology from UC Davis, is the system we have. There were many other players, but there was a very home-grown, local effort to get this project going and awarded.

THE BARRIERS

A barrier we had was that the land was in the city of Sacramento. Sometimes these municipalities don’t like to play nice together, so we had to come together to get this project off the ground and going.

Originally, when this was still a thought behind closed doors, it was a 10-ton-per-day organic waste project—no pipeline gas and limited fleet access. The primary reason was it was either going to be the first or second project Clean World was going to put together.

The amount of gas it was going to generate was going to be able to accommodate the Atlas Disposal fleet alone until it got a little more up to scale, so we didn’t need pipeline access, and I didn’t need additional customers yet.

Through funding opportunities with the California Energy Commission (CEC), primarily, and with other stakeholders, the build spec came out to 25 tons per day of organic waste, including pipeline gas for reliability to fuel the customers, and a full car-lock style fleet fueling station. It was a very bare-boned, get-your-fuel-get-out-get-on-with-your-day type of station.

By 2015, Phase III was completed and it is now a 100-ton-per-day facility with four fueling nozzles. Our 12-month trajectory is more than 800,000 gallons.

There’s an off-load site, a concrete pad where organics get dumped and a conveyor system. Four tanks are on the north side of the lot that we call the first phase of the process with the build-out spec of 25 tons per day. In 2015, we had two other tanks put in that are 300,000 and 600,000 gallons.

We have a gas cleanup system where we have our sulfur treatment, bioCNG, an electricity generator and our fueling station. There’s plenty of turning access.

The county had a large piece of land it needed to do something with, and we used it to its fullest. Two big tanks on the west side of the lot hold gas throughout the night when the garbage fleets are not fueling.

PROGRESSIVELY THINKING

Sacramento County was progressive in thinking ahead of California Assembly Bill (AB) 1826, a piece of legislation that requires organics recycling for commercial businesses that generate more than 4 cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week. I don’t know if AB 1826 was even talked about or kicked around in 2008, 2009 or 2010, but that’s what Sacramento County had to do.

When we talk about how we get more of these stations developed and how we get more fleet access without access to the pipeline, we’re talking about a really local effort in those areas where people are thinking ahead and trying to get into energy conversion.

Atlas Disposal started collecting organic waste in 2011. That made us a prime candidate to continue to grow that line of business.

From a business standpoint, we’re running on natural gas; we continue to pick up organics; we’re the No. 1 hauler of organic waste in the Sacramento area; and all these things happened because we had to think ahead of any regulation.

In 2015, the county wanted us to collect 8 yards of organic waste. This was an easy one for us as a hauler to try to figure out. It’s a lot of feedstock. It’s a big fish in the pond.

The other benefit that we get as a natural gas vehicle and fleet is automatic overnight fueling. You can’t do this with liquid petroleum products, renewable or not. My drivers can pull up, plug in and walk away. Their trucks will be fueled for them in the morning.

For the update that started Jan. 1, 2017, to collect 4 yards of organic waste, there’s going to be a ton more feedstock to the point that there’s going to be more feedstock than what this local AD system can handle. So, we’re going to have to figure out where it’s going to go because there’s demand for this fuel to be used.

THE BEST USE

The highest and best use for organic waste can come in a variety of ways. We can use it for compost, animal feed—some really good producers out there were using watermelon juice, and pigs and cows would love the rinds—but is that the right thing to do? Is it the best use?

When we talk about fuel, it makes sense because we had an anchor tenant. Atlas Disposal had more than one dozen renewable natural gas (RNG) collection vehicles at the time, and as of late 2016 it had more than 25 vehicles that were converted to RNG.

There’s no stopping us from this point on. We have product availability, we have increasing organic feedstock availability, and, with AB 1826, its pushed us even further because its mandated.

[RNG] is environmentally better. We and most of our customers are specifically displacing a petroleum-based diesel. Renewable diesels are coming out, and there’s a lot of talk about that, but most of the fuel that’s getting replaced is a traditional petroleum diesel.

With our system, there is a negative carbon intensity score. So, with my trucks—traditionally dirty, gross things people don’t like to think about—I get to clean the air with my dirty vehicle, and that’s really cool.

The other benefit that we get as a natural gas vehicle and fleet is automatic overnight fueling. You can’t do this with liquid petroleum products, renewable or not. My drivers can pull up, plug in and walk away. Their trucks will be fueled for them in the morning. My guys have more road time because they don’t have to fuel in the middle of the day.

The federal renewable identification number (RIN) values are some of the strongest we’ve ever seen. Senate Bill 32, a piece of legislation that is set to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below its 1990 levels by 2020, pushed the Low Carbon Fuel Standard’s (LCFS’) credits into 2030.

At the end of 2016, we were serving more than 30 customers. When we first started, we had about five customers, and its only growing from there.

We accept all major fleet cards because you have to remove any barriers for customers that want to fuel with you. If you don’t fit into their system, they won’t come at all.

In 2017, we are expanding our time fill station to almost 60 stalls. The station we are building doesn’t have an AD system next to it, but we are actively looking for RNG to get there because that’s what’s needed and what we’re all about.

Sean Moen is general manager of Atlas Refuel, Sacramento, California, and can be reached at sean@atlasrefuel.com.