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L.A. to turn sludge from treated wastewater into energy

Methane gas from biosolids pumped into deep wells in San Pedro will run fuel cells.

April 06, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles city officials broke ground Thursday on a renewable energy project in San Pedro they touted as an innovative way to produce electricity for about 3,000 homes while saving money, reducing truck traffic on local roadways and cutting greenhouse emissions.

Officials unveiled the five-year plan at the city's Terminal Island Water Reclamation Plant, calling it a first-of-its-kind in the country that could serve as a model for other cities.

"This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in announcing the plan, which is part of a broader effort to increase the city's use of alternative energy sources. "It will save money and make money."

The renewable energy project calls for injecting spongy organic material left over from treated wastewater into depleted oil and gas reservoirs more than a mile underground.

High temperatures and pressure in those pockets will compress the biosolid material, creating methane gas that will be captured to power fuel cells on the surface, engineers say. The underground processes also will dissolve carbon dioxide that the organic material would normally release into the air, removing the equivalent of exhaust from 3,200 cars each year over the next five years.

The system is expected to cost $3 million to $4 million to build, and it will come on line in phases, starting in the spring of 2008, project director Homayoun Moghaddam said.

When fully operational in three years, it is expected to produce 3.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power nearly 3,000 homes -- energy worth $2.4 million a year. The energy, however, is expected initially to go to port-related facilities around Terminal Island.

The biosolid material for the new system will come from the Terminal Island treatment plant and the Hyperion sewage treatment plant in El Segundo. It will be combined with treated water from the Terminal Island plant that would otherwise be pumped into the Los Angeles Harbor.

City engineers said the energy project would reduce by about half the 750 tons of treated solid waste trucked daily to a city-owned farm in Kern County, where it is spread as fertilizer. That would cut truck trips from 38 to 16 each day, Moghaddam said. The city would save more than $1.6 million annually in hauling costs, officials said.

The project received an enthusiastic thumbs up Thursday from an administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the head of Santa Monica Baykeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting inland and coastal waters throughout Los Angeles.

"There is a great deal of interest among researchers, among operators, among other cities and utilities in exploring what can be gained as this operation moves forward," said Alexis Strauss, the EPA's water division director in California.

The L.A. Public Works Department is coordinating the project with Terralog Technologies USA Inc., which will operate the system during the initial five years.

The city must obtain a permit from the EPA to continue operations permanently. Engineers and city leaders voiced confidence in its success.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents San Pedro, said she was an early skeptic but came around to the project's potential benefits.

"I have no concerns about this project now," Hahn told the Terminal Island gathering. "I'm excited that Los Angeles is the first anywhere to put this project into implementation. We're making history here today."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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