Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Biofuel Debate

The Republican-American and The Observer have been covering a proposal for a biofuel company (Chestnut Hill BioEnergy) to open in the former Anamet factory building in the South End. The Independents, led by Larry DePillo, have been loudly protesting the plan. My initial, uneducated, response was "biofuel is bad." Over the past several years, I have read news articles insisting that biofuel is full of hidden hazards, that it ultimately costs more than it saves, that it is bad, bad, bad. I have driven through small towns plastered with signs protesting proposed biofuel factories. But before writing this blog post, I decided I had better do some research first. Here's what I learned:

First, there is more than just one type of biofuel. The really bad kind wastes land and crops to grow corn which is converted to fuel. This is a very dangerous form of biofuel which has the potential to destroy world economies and increase the rate of destruction of vital forests. The biofuel company planning to move to Waterbury is not this type of factory. They will use food garbage from grocery stores and other large-scale producers of formerly-edible waste. This is good. This is fantastic. Instead of piling up garbage in a landfill where it does nothing but stink, we convert it into energy and thereby reduce our dependency on the non-renewable energy sources. This is the future of energy, and we have the opportunity to participate in it. There might still be some issues relating to the energy needed to power the biofuel plant, but I think that is a larger issue that doesn't really impact Waterbury.

Second, while Chestnut Hill Biofuel has a past record of operating a stinky factory (in New Jersey, if I'm remembering correctly), a biofuel factory does not need to produce any odors whatsoever. In fact, I found a website ( that gives advice on how to build your own biodiesel processor, odor/fume free, in your own garage. This is an amazing concept: take your food scraps and whatever dies in the fridge, and make your own fuel. It also speaks to the potential for a biofuel factory to be a very good neighbor. If it is operating correctly, there should be no smells and no more hazard than a gas station.

Now, granted, I am not a biofuel industry expert, but I think Chestnut Hill BioEnergy is potentially a very good addition to Waterbury. They have received a $500,000 grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which suggests that they have been carefully examined and will be inspected throughout their installation/set-up process. Careful oversight should ensure that the facility will be safe and odor-free.

There are still a few other issues that have been raised. One is the selected site within Waterbury. The former Anamet factory is on South Main Street, with access from Route 8 via Washington Avenue and from I-84 going down South Main Street. These are both fairly narrow, crowded streets, not really ideal for large trucks going to and from the factory (back in the old days, the factories all had their own railroad spurs for this purpose). The future of this area of the South End is currently in limbo: it is in desperate need of revitalization. The Loyola group has a plan to dramatically improve the quality of life for this neighborhood, but the Board of Aldermen are inexplicably reluctant to help move that plan forward, despite having already funded the earliest phase of the project. I don't know if a biofuel plant is beneficial to this neighborhood. I would like to know why this specific site within Waterbury was chosen--it is in a location that has become primarily residential, while there are other areas of the city, close by, that are primarily industrial. It would be a tremendously good thing if the city had a clear plan of improvement in place for this neighborhood, but it seems like the majority of the city leaders don't care about this neighborhood (okay, now I'm wandering off on a less-informed rant).

Another issue is "why Waterbury?" Waterbury suffers from severely low self-esteem. We're like an insecure teenager who gets invited to a party by the cool kids, but assumes that it's going to end in disaster and doesn't go (or leaves early under the mistaken belief that he/she has done something embarrassing). The state is supporting the establishment of a biofuel plant in Waterbury, and many of us automatically assume that this must be a bad thing, that the state is picking on us because they don't like us. We view our industrial facilities as liabilities, not as assets. This is a mistake. The toxic pollutants left by the past manufacturers are definite liabilities, but the facilities themselves are assets. A properly operated biofuel plant could very well prove to be a tremendous asset for Waterbury.

I think the only real questions are whether or not the former Anamet factory is the best location within Waterbury for Chestnut Hill BioEnergy, and what supervision and safeguards will be in place to ensure that the facility operates properly.


Bryan P. Baker said...

I like your assessment of the situation. I sit on the Environmental Control Commission, and saw their presentation on 3/26. I still have a few questions, but share your guarded optimism for this project. There's still a lot to learn, and I should be posting something on my blog soon. Otherwise, come to our meeting on 4/23 (6PM) to see where things stand as of now.

Paul said...

I enjoyed reading your take on the proposed bioenergy plant. I've been doing food waste digestion for over 2 years now and I can definitely tell you that it is not something you jump into. One of the most important considerations that I didn't see mentioned was the very high BOD/COD, TSS and TKN waste water produced. If the local waste water treatment facility is not involved in the discussions, this plant could bring the existing WWTP to its knees. Smell is obviously a big issue, as is the compost on the back end. Folks love to call it organic but typically the compost is full of material that wouldn't digest, like plastics, glass, etc.