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Why Build a Biodigester at Philly's Refinery?

There are a few new projects to watch out for in Philadelphia and the surrounding area, including a proposal to liquefy and sell more LNG from PGW, updates on the Adelphia Gateway pipeline, and changes at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. We'll cover all of them, starting with the plan to build an anaerobic digester on PES's land.

Biodigester Basics: Point Breeze Renewable Energy

In late August, Philadelphia Energy Solutions and anaerobic digester builder RNG Energy Solutions announced an agreement to build a biodigester on a section of semi-vacant land at the refinery, with the City of Philadelphia and City's Streets Department's blessing. The project would be called Point Breeze Renewable Energy and would process 350,000 gallons per day/1,400 tons per day of “liquid organic food waste” from a variety of regional sources, including large-scale producers such as supermarkets and cafeterias, and break it down to two main products: methane (or biogas) and dried solids. Proposed uses for the methane include PES Girard Point refinery and SEPTA buses. RNG would lease the land from PES, and PES would purchase gas from the plant.

Process flow overview for the digesters

The proposed process flow from delivery to biogas/biomethane distribution, from RNG's presentation to the Streets Department in May 2018

Why does Philadelphia Energy Solutions want a “renewable” energy project?

The biogas would provide them with coveted renewable energy credits called RINs (renewable identification numbers), the cost of which allegedly led to their bankruptcy. The project would also be a profitable or at least productive use of part of their massive land area, and may be a way to avoid more extensive remediation there. As the name makes obvious, the project is great for public relations.

Why do the City of Philadelphia and Streets Department want this?

The City says the project would increase its renewable energy/gas supply. In comments to PlanPhilly, Streets Department Director Nic Esposito said that the project would help commercial organic waste producers meet the City’s zero waste goals. However, the project would receive liquid organic waste from sources as far as Maryland and central New Jersey. And of course, any project that is or can be branded as green or renewable is useful public relations fodder for the City, its Office of Sustainability, and various departments.

What’s the timeline for this project?

In RNG’s presentation to the Streets Department, they list the various state and local permits they would need to obtain. Permitting agencies include the Federal Airline Administration, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Philadelphia Air Management Services, Philadelphia Water Department, and Philadelphia Streets Department. PES and RNG also need to obtain $120 million in financing and contracts to actually start the project.

A view from I-76/Vare Ave and New Hope Street. Behind the PES tanks is the proposed site.

What are some concerns?

  • Much of the public content about this project refers to biogas, biomethane, and methane almost interchangeably. Biogas is a mixture of methane, CO2, and impurities. Biomethane is biogas that has been brought to the standards for pure methane. Using biogas for things like CNG (compressed natural gas) fuel, transmission pipelines, and grid-connected electricity generation requires additional steps and processing.

  • The City said that the project won’t receive public subsidies, but we don’t know their operating definition of a public subsidy. For example, the site is in a Keystone Opportunity Zone that exempts it from many state and local taxes.

  • The 22-acre site is currently used for tanker truck and contractor parking, but previously was an Atlantic Refinery tank farm. How contaminated is the soil? What risks would soil disruption pose there? Would the project exempt from PES from any remediation they might otherwise have to perform?

  • The City’s initial approval of the project happened without any public input. While the project still needs financing and permits, what will the public informing and input process be for each of the permit stages?

  • RNG’s flagship project, the Heartland anaerobic digester in Colorado, was shut down over odor and pollution concerns under operator Edf Renewables. Besides their expected emissions, biodigesters can become an odor nuisance and negate their climate benefits through methane leaks.

  • The proposal calls for truck delivery of food waste and at least some truck distribution of the produced methane. By our calculations, there would be 50 – 60 truck trips per day for delivery alone, during daytime hours.

  • The project would include building a compressor station for the produced gas, which are an additional source of risk and pollution.

  • Once operational, the project would only provide 20 direct jobs and 40 indirect (trucking) jobs.

  • The proposed site is close to I-76, within a quarter mile and upwind of densely populated, environmental justice neighborhoods that are already overburdened with pollution from the highway and refining complex.

Grays Ferry homes and PES tanks near the proposed site for the biodigester

The edge of a South Philadelphia neighborhood, divided from the proposed site by I-76 and PES tanks

  • In 2012, the Texas Eastern Transmission Company (TETCo) expanded the reach and capacity of its Philadelphia Lateral, which extends from the main TETCo pipeline system to the Philadelphia area. Part of that expansion was to PES. For several years, TETCo’s owners (first Spectra Energy, now Enbridge, have been exploring an additional expansion to the Philadelphia area. Enbridge held an open season in March 2018. The Adelphia Gateway Pipeline project, currently being planned and permitted, would connect to the Philadelphia Lateral, and Enbridge is offering gas from the Adelphia Gateway Pipeline project in its TETCo expansion marketing.

  • The RNG presentation mentions the TETCo pipeline on site as an offtake point for the methane. What impacts would this project have on fracked gas demand and transmission, and could it serve as a palatable cover project for these larger fracked gas pipeline designs?

This blog will keep you updated as we learn more about what this project could mean for the region--and how you can get involved.

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