The manure digester just north of Waunakee could someday begin to produce more electricity and even compressed natural gas (CNG) to fuel vehicles.
Those are some of the new functions the principals of Clean Fuel Partners say they will explore as they purchase a plant once mired in regulatory violations.
Clean Fuel Partners was founded about a year ago, according to John Haeckel, a founder and CEO.
“What we’ve set out to do is own and operate anaerobic digester facilities specifically because we want to capture methane that otherwise would be released to the atmosphere from organic waste,” Haeckel said.
Currently, the digester north of Waunakee, begun in partnership with Dane County, captures biogas to produce electricity. It was built to collect manure from three farms and also remove phosphorus, preventing it from entering runoff to Lake Mendota and producing algae.
But Haeckel sees other opportunities at the facility.
“We know there are other possible uses of biogas that we may explore down the road. It’s possible to purify and upgrade gas so it can be used as compressed natural gas,” Haeckel said.
Other start-ups in California are developing techniques to create plastic from biogas, he added.
Clean Fuel Partners is contracting with Bernard Sheff, vice president of engineering for ES Engineering Services in Michigan. Sheff is also chair of the American Biogas Council and has been working in the industry for 32 years.
“In 1991, my first digester went in. I’ve been around this for quite a while,” Sheff said.
That includes working on manure digesters throughout the United States and Europe. Sheff said he has evaluated the Vienna digester and studied how to improve its efficiency.
“One of the first things we’ll do is get a cover on the digester that is not in operation and get it operating,” he said. “At the end of four months, we will have undertaken engineering designwork to make changes, then evaluate the changes and move forward from there.”
Both Sheff and Haeckel say nutrient recovery will be key, adding that they will consider technology to remove 100 percent of the nutrients when processing the manure.
“I can tell you John [Haeckel] has some very big plans in what he wants to do,” Sheff added.
Sheff and Haeckel compared the Vienna digester to an ES Engineering facility in Chico, California. That digester also brings in substrate food waste from food processing plants, Sheff said.
The first step will be to complete the Dane County plant’s rehabilitation so that it is performing at the level it was designed to, Haeckel said. Then the company will explore recovering more nutrients from the manure, he added.
Recently, reverse osmosis technology was demonstrated at the Town of Springfield digester that renders potable water during the separation process.
“That’s something we look forward to looking at,” Haeckel said.
Haeckel noted that an Italian company currently manufactures fuel cell tractors. That could be a use for biogas, he said, creating an energy independent, zero emission farm.
“That’s intriguing,” he said.
While Sheff has the engineering background, specifically in anaerobic digester technology, Haeckel has the financial expertise.
Haeckel has been an investment banker focused primarily on debt restructuring, he said. He was formerly CFO for CB Richard Ellis, and before that for Broadway Department Stores. He is also a member in Chilmark Partners, a corporate restructuring firm.
“My primary activity was advising companies and their constituents on financing restructuring of large corporations,” Haeckel said.
Haeckel has also worked with distressed companies, he added.
“Usually when a company is distressed, it extends beyond just the financial,” he added.
Haeckel added that Clear Horizons, the digesters’ current owners, had been operating in crisis management mode following three spills and an explosion from late 2013 to mid 2014.
According to Haeckel, Clear Horizons’ current CEO, Norm Doll, consulted with Sheff in an effort to improve the digester’s operation.
In 2014, the Department of Natural Resources referred a number of violations at the plant to the Department of Justice. However, the digester is now meeting the DNR specifications, and those violations have been resolved.
When Clean Fuel Partners considered purchasing the digester, Sheff again visited the plant, Haeckel said.
“He validated that the company had followed the recommendations he suggested in terms of what [Clear Horizons] needed to do,” Haeckel said. Sheff “has given us great confidence about the facility’s capacity to operate moving forward.”
Joining the team as one of Clean Fuels’ principals is Jessica Niekrasz. Niekrasz has a background in marketing and hopes to open the lines of communication, she said.
“My personal feeling is that Dane County and the constituents really deserve to understand what the facility is doing, how it works and operates,” she said.
Niekrasz would like to organize meetings with individuals affected by the digester and share the plans with the community along the way, she added.
But both are also driven by the bottom line, Haeckel said.
“We like the AD [anaerobic digester] environment,” Haeckel said. “We think it’s a really great answer. It’s a business solution to an environmental issue.”