New York City is the only city in the US that never sleeps. It is also one city that often smells, especially in the summer. One reason is the city’s aging sewage system, to which the city’s 8 million residents contribute 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily.
All that wastewater goes through several processes until it is reduced to a daily amount of 1200 tons of sludge. For 50 years until the late 1980s, that sludge was treated as a waste product and sent out by barges where it was dumped at sea. Currently most of those biosolids end up in landfills in Long Island and even as far away as Virginia. NYC officials, however, now believe that all that sludge could be harvested into sources of clean energy. For now one of those gases, methane, is a fuel source for the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants. Fuel from wastewater, however, could find more use throughout the city.
City officials want to turn even more of that waste into energy for its residents. New York City still creates an excess of methane gas, half of which is still wasted because the city’s treatment plants burn them off. The city is searching for private vendors that have the capacity to churn that wasted methane into energy for homes and businesses. One partnership in the works could create enough energy to heat up to 2500 homes in Brooklyn.
At a time when cities are facing budget constraints, the transformation of a hazard like wastewater into an asset like energy is one creative way to generate revenue while mitigating environmental problems. New York City spends over US$400 million a year to deal with wastewater, and while the city has progressed from the days of dumping waste into the Atlantic, those landfills in Long Island and elsewhere will not have room forever. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) already converts some of that stinky sewage sludge into fertilizer, and compost, but more waste diversion efforts can allay some of the department’s constant headaches. The conversion of some of that waste into pavement or building materials are future possibilities, too.
NYC hopes to have contracts in place to capture that remaining energy by 2013. Meanwhile the DEP is considering the installation of solar and wind power systems at its Staten Island plant. Clean energy from reeking sewage may not sound glamorous, but if it can take care of two problems–waste and energy–look for other municipalities to follow as fossil fuels continue their upward climb.