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Sierra Harvest: Don’t dump it … digest it!

Johnny Pomeroy and Phil Alonso
Special to The Union


California Senate Bill 1383 requires jurisdictions to divert organic “waste” from landfills, however Interfaith Food Ministry and Rough & Ready Grange won’t need to be asked twice. Interfaith Food Ministry is already rescuing food that is still fit for human consumption and feeding farm animals with most of its food waste. Already partnering with Interfaith Food Ministry to offer a free, 4th Saturday Breakfast to the community, Rough & Ready Grange is committed to sustainability and community resilience. Working together to help Nevada County comply with the new law is a clear next step. This dynamic duo is motivated and ready to begin converting food waste into fuel with an innovative biodigester project.

Interfaith Food Ministry and Rough & Ready Grange are both active members of the Nevada County Food Policy Council. The Food System Assessment published by the council in 2020 identified food recovery and food waste reduction as one of eleven key opportunities for improving our local food system. Ninety percent of the organic material that is deemed unfit for human consumption at Interfaith Food Ministry is fed to pigs at a local farm, but the other 10%, which is unfit for animal feed, currently goes into the trash. Making compost to feed the soon-to-be-built garden beds at Rough & Ready Grange was one option to deal with this additional 10%, but Phil and Interfaith Food Ministry were very intrigued by other waste reclaiming technologies, like biodigesters, which also support energy independence.

When Rough & Ready Grange presented Interfaith Food Ministry with some of the technologies available, Phil perked right up, and took the lead in requesting a conversation with key stakeholders in Nevada County. Waste Management’s Shavati Karki-Pearl organized a meeting with representation from the county, City of Grass Valley, Waste Management, Interfaith Food Ministry, Rough & Ready Grange, BriarPatch Food Co-op, and Sierra Harvest. That conversation ended with a decision that Rough & Ready Grange and Interfaith Food Ministry could oversee and manage the innovative project but would need all of the stakeholders and the community at large to promote and participate in a crowdfunding campaign, launching this June, to help Interfaith Food Ministry fund the biodigester. The project will not only reclaim organic waste, but also serve as a community demonstration for others to learn from.

After exploring all of the various technologies on the market, Interfaith Food Ministry and Rough & Ready Grange chose to pursue engineering from Washington’s Impact Bioenergy, makers of the technology adopted by Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, WA. The HORSE (High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical Output) processes about 40 tons of organic matter annually, producing liquid fertilizer and methane in the process. The introduction of biochar (a carbon-rich material similar to charcoal that is already produced locally) stabilizes the digestion in the digester and eliminates odor. The resulting methane can be used in a variety of applications, including generating electricity.

The biodigester has enormous potential to produce hydrogen to power Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV). Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all currently have FCEV on the road in both California and Hawaii, with about 9,000 currently registered with California’s DMV. While other electric vehicles seem a green choice, they require large amounts of lithium (mined from huge pits in the earth) for their batteries, and even more bleak, depend on electricity, the majority of which (34% in California) is generated from burning fossil fuels. The electricity running the electric motor in a FCEV comes from burning hydrogen, and the byproduct is water … something of which California could definitely use en masse. The HORSE biodigester effectively turns a waste stream into a resource stream!

The crowdfunding campaign for the biodigester project launches in June, and everyone is invited to get involved and help support this exciting project. This is not just about Interfaith Food Ministry or Rough & Ready Grange (or any of the aforementioned stakeholders for that matter), it’s about building new, sustainable systems that are resilient against the “new normal” of supply chain interruptions and power shutoffs. It is time to invest in local innovations and alternative systems so that our community is prepared for the next emergency. As the saying goes, “Prior proper planning prevents poor performance.” If we fail to plan, then we should plan to fail. Let’s choose a different route!

Want to get involved? Visit interfaithfoodministry.org and click on “Zero Waste” in the menu bar. Here you can learn more about Zero Waste efforts and sign up to volunteer and/or donate to these projects. More research and community input are needed, and so you can also complete an online survey about Zero Waste projects and what you currently do with your food waste. Or if you are an animal farmer or composter that could use food waste as a resource, then we want to hear from you too!

See calrecycle.ca.gov/organics/slcp/ for more information about SB 1383. To read the Nevada County Food Policy Council Food System Assessment, visit: https://sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/.

Johnny Pomeroy is with the Rough & Ready Grange and Phil Alonso is Executive Director of Interfaith Food Ministry for the Nevada County Food Policy Council

Interfaith Food Ministry and Rough & Ready Grange are motivated and ready to begin converting food waste into fuel with an innovative biodigester project.
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