Feb. 21, 2013
Hannah Guzik, OVN correspondent
Building a biodigester to convert the Ojai Valley’s horse manure into energy makes financial and environmental sense, according to a preliminary report released this week.
The facility would cost about $8.5 million, but would pay for itself within five or 10 years through electricity sales, claims the Waste 2 Energy community group.
“The report is very positive from an economic standpoint,” said Phil Sherman, an engineer and W2E volunteer. “What I’ve been saying all along is, ‘Yes, it’s feasible,’ and now we have a report to prove it.”
The volunteer group will present the latest results from a feasibility study, conducted through the Ventura River Watershed Council using grant funds, at a public meeting from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Chaparral High School auditorium, 414 E. Ojai Ave.
The anaerobic biodigester would convert horse manure, farm waste, landscaping clippings and food scraps from restaurants and schools into methane energy, fertilizer and compost. The methane gas could be burned for heat or used to turn turbines, creating electrical energy that could be sold.
The first portion of the feasibility study, begun in January 2012, found that the Ojai Valley has enough waste to make a biodigester practical. A biodigester would use 50 tons per day of waste, with 23 tons coming from horse waste, 6.3 tons from horse bedding, 1.5 tons from food waste and 19 tons from green waste.
Sherman, who came up with the idea for the biodigester five years ago, said he’d like to see the facility operate as a cooperative, eventually returning profits to horse owners.
“The best way to make it work would be to form a co-op so that the farmers and ranchers and horse owners that are contributing the raw materials would be eventually able to get some money back,” he said.
According to the earlier feasibility study, the city could create another waste barrel for residents, in addition to the trash and recycling cans already offered. Horse ranchers could put their manure in the barrel and a waste management company, such as E.J. Harrison & Sons, could pick up it up and transport it to the biodigester.
Debbie Godfrey, owner of Ojai on Horseback, said she likely wouldn’t be interested in joining a co-op because she composts her horse manure and uses it on the 140 fruit trees on her property.
But she said other horse owners she’s spoken with might be interested in giving their waste to a biodigester, depending on whether there were upfront costs.
“It’s a great idea, instead of just putting it in the landfill, but I think the biggest concern for horse owners is the cost,” she said. “I think most would be resistant to paying to put it in waste containers, because it’s already expensive to have horses. Right now, they’re putting it in the waste bin, which doesn’t cost any extra money unless they’re ordering more waste bins.”
Jolene Hoffman, shelter director of the Humane Society of Ventura County, said she’s waiting to learn more about the biodigester before deciding whether the nonprofit would be interested in participating.
“Right now we have Harrison trash pick up a dumpster of manure and they recycle it and it seems to be working out fine, but I’d like to be educated more about the biodigester before I make a decision,” she said.
The biodigester facility would be built on about 2 acres of land zoned for industrial and commercial use, Sherman said.
The feasibility study identified four possible sites, but zeroed in on one located next to the Ojai Valley Sanitary District plant on North Ventura Avenue just south of Casitas Springs. Odors from the facility would be contained inside the building and most likely wouldn’t be noticeable to neighbors, Sherman said.
Currently, most horse manure in the Ojai Valley ends up in the Toland Road Landfill in Santa Paula, although some is composted. It’s possible that, before it can be disposed of, some runoff from the waste ends up contaminating the Ventura River Watershed, posing environmental problems, according to W2E.
Animal waste that flows into the watershed, among other contaminants, can cause algae and bacteria to proliferate, resulting in lower oxygen levels in the water and harming wildlife, including the endangered steelhead trout.
Consultants from the infrastructure firm AECOM are conducting the feasibility study, funded through a $75,000 state grant and $25,000 from the county and fund raising. After they issue a final report this spring, W2E will try to secure grants to begin construction.
If the group begins applying for grants and fund raising this year, the report estimates the biodigester could be built by 2016, Sherman said.
“That’s probably a pretty conservative figure; and if we got a lot of money upfront and didn’t have trouble with any of the environmental aspects, we could fast-track it,” he said.