Onions-to-Energy Plant Wins Top Engineering Award

A plant that converts bits and pieces of onion into clean energy won the 44th Annual Engineering Excellence Awards, it was announced this week.

The plant, called the Advanced Energy Recovery System, was designed by HDR Engineering for Gill’s Onions, an onion processor in Oxnard, California.

Each day, the system converts 200,000 pounds of onion waste  into biogas, which in turn powers two 300-kilowatt fuel cells providing 95-100 percent of the facility’s base power load.

But perhaps most remarkable about the $10 million system is that it will pay for itself in less than five years.

“We’ve bridged that gap between environmentalism and good business,” said Nikki Rodoni, Director of Sustainability at Gill’s Onions. “We didn’t go into this to win an award, we did it to solve a problem.”

Old Way of Business “Unsustainable”

Ten years ago, Gills, one of the country’s leading onion processors, was struggling with what to do with the onion waste left over from processing. The Oxnard facility peels, slices and dices up to a million pounds of onions a day for use in salsas and other foods, and they had been spending $450,000 a year to haul the waste to farmland, where it was used as fertilizer.

In addition to the cost involved, the land where they hauled the onions had become part of the city due to sprawl, and there were concerns about groundwater contamination. The onion also attracted unwanted pests and “could become odorous at times,” said Rodoni, especially when it rained.

Realizing the situation was, in a very real sense, unsustainable, Gill’s began exploring other options.

When it was determined the onion waste could be converted to gas through anaerobic digestion, Gill’s contracted HDR to build the plant. In addition to the biogas, the plant emits an onion waste cake which can be fed to animals. The fuel cells generate a small amount of CO2 and a lot of heat, which Gill’s hopes to use to heat water for the processing facility.

But what makes Gill’s Onions experience so noteworthy is that, although the company has a strong commitment to environmental sustainability, the decision to build the plant made sense on a purely financial basis.

The plant cost $10 million, but Gill’s got a $499,000 grant from the California Energy Commission, and will receive a $2.5 million dollar check from the Self Generation Incentive Program from Southern California Edison, once it proves the fuel cells are running on at least 75 percent biogas.

Gills also hopes to get a $1.8 million tax credit from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

Combining all of those incentives, and factoring in the $450,000 a year not spent on getting rid of the waste, plus the $700,000 Gill’s was spending on electricity, the $10 million dollar project will pay for itself in a mere four and a half years.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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