National Grid Wants to Heat More Homes With Converted Food Waste — and Make You Pay For It

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Yves here. For UK based readers, this is the same National Grid that supplies gas and electricity in Great Britain. As you can see below, its US biogas plant is in fact not doing very well on either the environmental or the cost front. So if National Grid try selling any biogas schemes there, please alert officials to their sorry record in the US. And if you are in New York State, tell the Public Service Commission that National Grid must improve performance before any expansion can be approved.

By Samantha Maldonado. Published by THE CITY on May 22, 2024

The “digester eggs” of Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint are a high-profile reminder of the city’s environmental impact. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The utility National Grid wants to expand its efforts to heat its customers’ homes and businesses with gas generated from the digestion of human and food waste — and wants you to pay for it as part of a proposed rate hike.

National Grid says its proposal to use the gas produced from organics and sewage as fuel for customers — which it has already been testing at the city’s Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant — is part of its efforts to go green: it would avoid carbon emissions and replace fracked gas.

But some environmental advocates warn against National Grid’s proposed projects. They point to persistent breakdowns at the company’s existing project at Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Greenpoint, where much of the methane created has ended up being burned off into the air instead of sent to gas customers.

The state Public Service Commission must approve the proposal, or an amended version of it, for National Grid to move forward with more waste-to-energy plants and increase customer bills to pay for it.

If greenlit by regulators, National Grid could charge its customers in New York City about $13.2 million to subsidize capital costs (Long Island customers would be on the hook for about $9.9 million). The company expects the four systems could be in service by mid-2027.

Much like a stomach, the Newtown Creek plant digests sewage and a smoothie of food scraps the Department of Sanitation collects from orange street corner bins, public schools and curbside from household brown bins. That digestion process creates biogas, which helps power the plant. The excess gas is supposed to pipe into the homes and businesses of National Grid customers.

When the equipment that purifies the biogas to a higher quality and injects into the grid is down — whether for maintenance, malfunctions or testing — the excess gas is “flared” off, which releases carbon dioxide, instead of being used to heat homes. Between April 2023 and March 2024, the system was offline for nearly as much time as it was online, records show.

“Why are we bringing more industrial pollution into these communities?” said Meagan Burton, senior attorney with Earthjustice, who also represents WE ACT for Environmental Justice in the National Grid rate case proceedings.

She said that between the financial costs to customers and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of new facilities, the proposed projects would constitute “double harm to ratepayers” — and the company hasn’t demonstrated it can properly run the project it’s already got.

In an email to THE CITY, National Grid spokesperson Karen Young said the conversion of organic waste into usable gas can play a “significant role” in achieving state climate goals.

“The Newtown Creek facility is an innovative new project that has already had a meaningful impact on reducing emissions from our network,” she wrote. “As with many pilot projects, we encountered some challenges when we first commenced operations.”

Meanwhile, mayoral budget cuts are shutting down dozens of community composting and collection sites that transform food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. As the city ratchets up its program to collect household organics waste curbside, wastewater treatment plants are poised to play a bigger role in processing that material.

According to the city Department of Environmental Protection, Newtown Creek flared 80% less often during the first four months of 2024 compared to the same period in 2022, before National Grid’s project began operating.

“While we are pleased at the massive reduction in flaring year over year, we are working hard to further drive that number down,” DEP spokesperson Ted Timbers wrote in an email.

Will it Work?

Under the proposal, National Grid wants to set up its gas-to-grid system in two existing wastewater treatment plants: a city-owned plant in South Ozone Park, Queens, and one in Nassau County. The company also proposes to set up its interconnection system in two plants that have yet to be built, one in Staten Island and another in Suffolk County.

The idea of bringing projects to other neighborhoods gave pause to some local watchdogs, who have for years watched flares coming out of the Newtown Creek plant.

“We have been very concerned about National Grid looking to expand RNG [renewable natural gas] projects given the massive delays and the ongoing issues with the Newtown Creek project being offline,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, which neighbors the wastewater treatment facility. “We don’t think there’s solid proof of concept.”The Newtown Creek plant has the potential to produce enough biogas to heat about 5,200 homes in New York City, but it has underperformed: National Grid injected enough gas from the project into the distribution system to meet the needs of about 1,000 homes during the April 2023 to March 2024 period, the company reported in documents filed with the state.




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  1. Ignacio

    I dislike this article, I regret to say, which takes an excessive naive approach to the treatment of waste water.

    Consider the most common alternative: evaporate the waste water spending tons of diesel (as it is done in many wastewater facilities in Spain as far as I know). With regards of the destiny of the biogas produced, whether you burn it (and produce electricity in the process saving some fossil fuel burning) or deliver it to the gas pipelines in both cases this is more sustainable. Biogas has less methane content than natural gas and when you inject it in the gas network there is some reduction of heating capacity per cubic meter in the pipelines. There are some bits of this article that are informative but the general tone is unserious IMO.

    Of all renewable fuels, IMO biogas is the one that makes better sense whether you obtain it from wastewater, solid urban residues or even solid agricultural residues or a combination of these.

    1. SteveD

      Agree – the material is superficial. There seems to be a valid proof of concept here, so I would have preferred to see an investigation on what is required for the plant to reach its design potential. Instead, essentially what we get is a “not everyone agrees…” piece.

      1. BrianM

        This is one of those projects that in theory should be a win/win for everyone. However, having seen several companies in the UK struggle with them, implementation is not easy. Running these places effectively requires both a consistency of substance in the raw material going on and a tuning of the plant to use it effectively. It wouldn’t be the first project that has failed because if can’t do either.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, I agree, the disposal/composting of organic waste (human and animal) is increasingly problematic due to microplastic and other chemical contaminants – while not ideal, anaerobic digestion is certainly better than many of the options (incineration or landfill is often the only alternative). It is a process widely used for agricultural wastes and some municipal wastes and is a well proven technology. Although its not clear to me as to why they have chosen treatment and direct injection into the gas grid rather than using it on-site for electricity or hot water generation, which is usually the most cost effective option.

      1. Alex V

        They already use some of the biogas at the facility, as per the linked piece:

        “The Newtown Creek plant generates what’s called biogas as a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process. About 60% of that biogas, which is mostly methane, helps power the facility itself, according to fiscal year 2021 figures provided by the DEP (the plant also relies on some natural gas).”

      2. Another Scott

        There is a large and lucrative market for renewable energy certificates in the US largely tied to transportation fuels. Biogas products that are connected to the gas grid are eligible for them, but when used for electricity, heat or industrial use, they are not. Yes, a cogeneration plant that provides power and process heat at the wastewater plant would almost certainly yield more environmental benefits, but current US policy on both a federal and state level disincentivizes them.

    3. fjallstrom

      The local bus just rolled by as I was reading your comment. It runs on biogas, and the biogas comes from the waste plant where my food waste goes.

      There is always going to be losses and you can never close the loops, but as things are I think it is pretty nifty. Wheter National grid manages to do it well or not is another question.

  2. R

    From my place in greenpoint i can see the facility pictured in this article. We definitely sometimes get odd wafting smells, but there are so many possible culprits in this area (the creek itself… other garbage facilities a bit further up the creek…) who knows what to blame.

    Theres an industrial building on the creek which for some reason has been developed with a rooftop garden, and hosts community events sometimes. From every corner of the rooftop theres a view with a plaque describing a different industrial atrocity, including a ‘superfund’ site.

    Trying to do something useful with NYC’s abundant waste doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, but its going to be interesting to see how projects like this sit as the neighbourhood gets fancier by the day.

  3. upstater

    “Why are we bringing more industrial pollution into these communities?”… outrage in the CITY, but real trash goes to flyover country.

    For decades the NYC metro area has been shipping hundreds of trucks and railroad cars to an enormous landfill at the head of Seneca Lake, the largest of New York’s Finger Lakes and to incinerators in Niagara Falls. These locations are hundreds of miles from where the trash is generated. NYT had a detailed article about it last year on the planned expansion to keep this mountain of NYC trash going until 2040:

    Why a Landfill as Tall as the Statue of Liberty May Rise Even Higher

    It’s tough to miss Seneca Meadows, New York state’s largest landfill: Rising nearly 300 feet tall, it’s almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty, including its pedestal.

    A decades-old depository of millions of tons of garbage, sprawled over more than 350 acres, it’s an artificial overlook visible from miles away.

    The corporations that sell products that need disposal should be forced to take back the waste and actually recycle it or process it. Seneca Meadows is a perfect example of socialized costs. The Newtown Creek facility seems like a grift. Nothing but phoney solutions and business as usual.

    1. Adam1

      OMG! A crime against nature of the grandest scale. I grew up in the eastern Finger Lakes area but now live near Rochester. I will actually drive by that monstrosity of an environmental disaster waiting to happen tomorrow heading back to my hometown.

      That landfill is only there because the long abandoned tiny former factory towns of Waterloo and Seneca Falls and their surrounding rural communities are in desperate need of financial resources. But I guess for some elite that’s a feature and not a bug.

  4. Alex V

    There’s a very fundamental technical error in understanding of the processes/technology involved in this piece:

    “the excess gas is “flared” off, which releases carbon dioxide, instead of being used to heat homes.”

    The gas still releases carbon dioxide when it is burned to heat homes. The primary difference is the heat is not captured when it flared, but there is zero difference in total carbon emissions.

    Anaerobic digestion is superior to composting from a GHG perspective:

    Without a total cost or emissions comparison of AD vs composting or landfilling this article is pretty meaningless in helping one understand what the best course of action is.

    National Grid had revenues of around 9 billion USD in New York in 2023. I doubt 13.2 million in passed-on capital costs would even be a rounding error on anyone’s bill at the end of the month.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Without a total cost or emissions comparison of AD vs composting or landfilling this article is pretty meaningless in helping one understand what the best course of action is.

      Yes. And that comparison should take into account the amount of fossil fuels that are replaced with gasses coming from waste processing operations.

      The article quoted Meagan Burton of Earthjustice, who opposes AD and asked, “Why are we bringing more industrial pollution into these communities?” I would ask her if sending customers natural gas that is 100% extracted from the ground (with some portion of it being fracked) is really a better solution.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      It seems you missed the point of the article. National Grid has not been able to make the plant work to a reasonable standard, yet wants to open more, oh and with consumer subsidies too.

      This is not about whether this is desirable in theory. The piece is about the performance of a particular operator.

  5. Adam1

    Personally I think this is a great concept, what I don’t get is why is the public being asked to pay for it via National Grid? I mean the waste treatment facility needs to get rid of the sludge eventually and there are costs associated with that, that their existing customers are paying in their sewage bills/taxes. Likewise, someone is paying for that collection of food waste that would have otherwise also gone to a landfill for a cost. It would seem the optimal solution would be for the community to float a bond and build the facility and then sell the gas to National Grid or whoever the highest bidder is or reduce their municipal fuel expenses by running their community vehicles on CNG. The current proposal seems to be a massive direct and indirect subsidy to National Grid.

  6. ISL

    If the organic material was composted, it would mostly remain as solid carbon – with a fraction permanently sequestered in the soil and the rest in the carbon cycle (and thus spending most of its time not in the atmosphere). Instead, it is converted into a greenhouse gas that is eventually released to the atmosphere. This is lose-lose except for national grid’s guaranteed profits.

    Also, one wonders how well clean the flared gas is? Do they flare after cleaning, or before? It likely is a massive NOx source that contributes to smog and its health impacts.

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