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HESS Industries Ltd. at the Braintree Business Development Center in Mansfield - Photo Bob Perkoski
HESS Industries Ltd. at the Braintree Business Development Center in Mansfield - Photo Bob Perkoski | Show Photo

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Hot renewable energy projects catapult ohio into the future

Mel Kurtz, President of Quasar Energy.
Mel Kurtz, President of Quasar Energy. - Photo Ken Chamberlain OSU CommTech
Ohio's renewable energy industry is influencing your energy consumption whether you know it or not. And like any other technology pioneer, its green path has been chock full of challenges as well as successes.

A massive new wind farm near Ohio's western border came online in 2012, while fascinating new biogas facilities continue to shoot up across the state. Even familiar staples like Campbell's soup are getting in on the action as they simmer away courtesy of solar panels in Napoleon, Ohio.
 
Mel Kurtz, President of Quasar Energy in Independence, cites three components to a successful renewable energy project: a product that is less expensive for the consumer than the existing alternative, one that is sustainable and environmentally friendly and lastly, one that captures what he calls the "greed factor" -- it must be part of a viable business model.

His Independence, Ohio based company is well on its way to meeting all those criteria and then some. Quasar builds systems into which "residual organics" are fed, then anaerobically digested and transformed into biogas, from which all the carbon dioxide is extracted. The result is a high-grade methane, or natural gas, which can be used for electricity, heating, boiler fuel and fuel for vehicles.
 
So far, Quasar has eight such processors across the state, as well as facilities in Massachusetts and New York. The "residual organics" include table food waste, industrial food waste, crop residuals, manure, fats and oils. The process emulates the way the earth creates traditional natural gas, but at an incredibly accelerated rate. Highly desirable fertilizer is another product of the anaerobic digestion process.
 
"The nutrient value is high and it's clean. It's not a chemical fertilizer," says Kurtz. "Farmers ask for it. They want it. In some cases, they get mad when they don't get it."
 
Quasar, which was founded in 2006 and employs 60 people, runs all of their company vehicles on their CNG (compressed natural gas), or as Kurtz likes to call it, QNG for Quasar natural gas.
 
If you're thinking of the iconic scene in Back to the Future wherein Doc fills up the DeLorean with pickings from Marty's trash, "That's pretty much happening now," says Kurtz. "It just doesn't look like garbage when they put it in the engine. Right now," he adds, "we're running about 27 vehicles on QNG." Quasar's fleet includes semis, maintenance trucks, pick-up trucks and passenger vehicles. The company operates four CNG filling stations throughout Ohio that are open to the public. As of this writing, the cost was $2.25 per gallon.
 
The residual organics that feed Quasar's anaerobic digesters come from a variety of sources including Wal-Mart and Pierre's Ice Cream, that would normally have to pay to haul the waste to a landfill or incinerator. Instead they pay Quasar to remove it—for a lot less. Hence, the company is essentially being paid for its raw materials. In addition to farmers, Quasar counts entities such as Cleveland Public Power among its among growing list of customers. They also use the natural gas they produce to fuel their facilities and the entire anaerobic digestion process.
 
Viable business model? Check.

With biogas, the customer base already exists. Other renewable energies need a little boost. Enter Ohio Senate Bill 221, which requires 12.5 percent of energy produced by Ohio's electric utilities to come from renewable sources by 2025. Such was the impetus behind Iberdrola Renewables' Blue Creek Wind Farm, which came online last year.
 
Creating a Market

The project was originally slated for Indiana, says Dan Litchfield, Senior Developer for Iberdrola, but Ohio SB 221 "created a market that we knew would be there and that we could compete in." Hence, the company decided to bring their $600 million project to the Buckeye State.
 
The farm consists of 152 massive turbines that stretch across 28,000 acres in Van Wert and Paulding counties in western Ohio. It generates an annual capacity of 304 megawatts, which is enough to fuel approximately 76,000 homes. The stalwart giants weigh 85 tons each. At a height of 476 feet (for reference, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet from the ground to the tip of her flame), they literally tower over fields of corn, soybean and wheat.
 
"The farmer's are willing to lease the land to us because they see the wind as another crop they can harvest that doesn't interfere with their main use of the land," says Litchfield of the symbiotic wind/agricultural relationship. "It's a great fit."
 
In addition to the initial investment, Iberdrola is on the brink of distributing approximately $2 million in annual lease payments to more than 250 landowners associated with the project. The giant turbines are good neighbors when it comes to taxes as well. Beginning next year, the farm will pay $2.7 million annually in taxes.
 
"It’s a huge game changer," says Litchfield. "The schools are really looking forward to the extra revenues they're going to see. So are the townships and the counties." Customers lining up to purchase Blue Creek's energy include First Energy, AMP (American Municipal Power) and Ohio State University.
 
There's a different Ohio State connection for Kurtz and Quasar as well. Kurtz chose to base Quasar in Ohio not only because he calls the Buckeye State home, but because of the company's partnership with Ohio State's Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). Kurtz says that his company has collaborated with OARDC on over $10 million worth of projects, including an operational anaerobic digestion system on the OARDC campus in Wooster. Most recently, Quasar and OARDC were awarded a $5.5 million dollar grant from the United States Departments of Agriculture and Energy to research enhancing the anaerobic digesting process.
 
Nortech CEO and President Rebecca Bagley describes the research component in the development of renewable energy as critical. Nortech promotes the advanced energy industry in northeast Ohio by facilitating innovation via funding, research and business opportunities.
 
"And OARDC really offers that research component that companies can leverage and create partnerships to move forward technology," says Bagley.
 
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Another friend of Ohio's renewable energy industry comes from just beyond the iconic Campbell's tomato soup label. Napoleon, Ohio is home to the company's largest plant and is the largest employer in this city of 8,700. While Campbell was founded in 1869, management's attitude toward energy and sustainability are cutting edge. Last year, the company partnered with BNB Napoleon Solar LLC and constructed a 60-acre solar power generation plant that came online last June. While BNB owns and operates the 24,000 solar modules, Campbell has made a 20-year commitment to purchase all the power the panels generate. They supply approximately 15 percent of the Napoleon facility's electricity.

"The solar farm is doing great. Everything is going along as planned," says Dave Stangis, Campbell’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Corporate Responsibility. "It's our first major installation so we're learning as well. It's a big change and it's changed our culture. It's allowing us to think about renewables as a viable option across our entire U.S. plant network."
 
Further to that end, Campbell is at work on an anaerobic digester project, which will process waste material from the Napoleon plant as well as from other area sources such as farms and waste recyclers.
 
"There aren't great options in this region for farmers and food producers for minimizing landfill waste," says Stangis. "This is a great way for the food that we can't get to people or animals to make its way away from the landfill," he says, adding that the diverted waste will be processed in a more environmentally sound way.
 
As with the solar farm, for 15 years Campbell will purchase all the electricity generated by the system and expects that to cover yet another 25 percent of its total electrical usage at its Napoleon facility. CH4 Biogas L.L.C. will own and operate Napoleon Biogas, which is slated for operation later this year. Hence, just as Ohio SB 221 is creating a market for renewable energy via legislation, the long-term agreements with CH4 Biogas and BNB created a stable customer in Campbell and viability for both private-sector projects, from funding to construction.
 
"We're an example of a guaranteed market," says Stangis. "It's a great business opportunity for us. It locks in our rate for energy."
 
Stangis credits the momentum behind both projects to a commitment the company made in 2010 to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2020 as measured by water and green house gas emissions. That vision, says Stangis, put innovation and creativity into motion.
 
"These projects wouldn’t have happened without some creative tension in the system that the company set up," he says, adding that the company's unfurling green leaf has also enhanced Campbell's brand. "It's a way to reinvent the brand with a whole new generation of consumers that have a different set of expectations for companies," says Stangis. As for Campbell's existing customers, he says, "It's a way to remind them that a brand that is 140 years old and has been trusted for all of these decades can also help lead us to the future."
 
A Diversified Portfolio

Not all renewable energy projects come to fruition. Turning Point Solar was moving along at light speed with plans to build the largest solar farm in the eastern United States. The group proposed building a 50-megawatt solar farm on reclaimed strip mining land in Noble County. Earlier this month, however, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) put the kibosh on the solar farm over how its development would be funded. Regarding resurrection of the project, it's too early to call, although there is little argument that the PUCO ruling was a devastating blow.
 
Setbacks notwithstanding, the more pragmatic among us may still wax skeptical when it comes to renewable energy. For them, Iberdrola's Communications Manager Paul Copleman offers this point of view regarding energy sources such as the Blue Creek Wind Farm.
 
"It's kind of like your 401k. You don't want to have all your stocks in coal or all your stocks in nuclear or all of your stocks in gas," he says. "You want to have a diversified portfolio. That makes sense in terms of the environment, in terms of broad based economic development and in terms of price stability and affordability. To incorporate a fixed price electricity source like wind is important for customers and for utilities."
 
Nortech's Bagley agrees.
 
"It's a portfolio approach," she says. "You're going to do a percentage of different electricities in different places so you're not totally reliant on one means of electricity development." Bagley also emphasizes, however, that the sound reasoning behind renewable energy research, development and implementation has benefits that reach beyond a diverse energy portfolio.
 
"These projects actually create jobs and they leverage natural resources as well as our industrial supply chain capability," she says. In the northeast Ohio area that Nortech services, says Bagley, "We've done five roadmaps in particular sectors in advanced energy and we found there's $30 billion in market opportunity along with 7,000 new jobs by 2019."
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