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Officials unveil big green generator at Hill plant

Staff Photo: John Bohn The F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford has a new gas-to-energy project, which converts recovered methane to internally produced electrical power, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in power costs to the plant annually. Methane is recovered as a product of the  digestion process of waste that occurs in large vessels referred to as eggs, shown here. A gas engine burns the recovered methane to provide electrical power to the water resources center.

Staff Photo: John Bohn The F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford has a new gas-to-energy project, which converts recovered methane to internally produced electrical power, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in power costs to the plant annually. Methane is recovered as a product of the digestion process of waste that occurs in large vessels referred to as eggs, shown here. A gas engine burns the recovered methane to provide electrical power to the water resources center.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Adam Minchey, right, special projects manager of the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford, describes the operations of a new gas-to-energy project, which uses recovered methane to generate internally produced electrical power, to Judy Wilson of the U.S. Department of Energy Tuesday.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Richard Porter, plant superintendent of the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford, walks into a structure containing a gas burning engine that is part of a new gas-to-energy project. The process burns recovered methane to produce electrical power, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in power costs to the plant annually.

BUFORD -- A commodity that was once literally going up in smoke is now powering Gwinnett's biggest sewage plant.

Thanks to federal stimulus funds, officials unveiled Tuesday the big green generator that converts methane gas -- a byproduct of the process to treat solid waste.

It is green in many ways, from the color to the environmental impact to the money it saves.

For 17 days in August, the gas-to-energy project saved $31,120.44 in power costs for the county. And officials say the total costs could grow even higher.

"It's a renewable energy source," said Adam Minchey, special projects manager for the Gwinnett Department of Water Resources, explaining that the food that people eat eventually ends up in the plant, where microscopic bugs digest it and release the gas. Until recently, the county had little choice but to "flare" or burn the gas to get rid of it.

"This will save us a lot of money," Minchey said.

The county expects to save between $400,000 and $500,000 a year at a plant with a power bill that ranges from $180,000 to $300,000 a month.

That could go even higher with a new fats, oils and grease project, that would convert byproducts from restaurants and other places to energy too.

The waste, such as the byproducts from the large Wrigley's gum factory in Flowery Branch, often ends up in landfills. But officials are trying to find a competitive price to bring it to the county.

"If we can get rid of it by increasing our energy, then it's a win-win," Minchey said.

"It's real fuel," said Richard Porter, the supervisor of the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center, the Buford plant that processes about half of Gwinnett's sewage.

The fats, oils and grease project used about $3.5 million of a $7.3 U.S. Department of Energy grant awarded to the county through President Obama's stimulus plan.

The majority of the $5.59 million in the gas-to-energy project was from a Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority loan, 60 percent of which will be forgiven.

Judy Wilson, a Department of Energy official who toured the plant Tuesday, said the impact was evident.

"I think the biggest gain has been in energy savings, not just in jobs," she said. "The energy savings, I think, is worth it. It saves money, so you can do the next project."

Water and sewer rate payers won't necessarily see a decrease in their bills, Minchey said, but with the rising cost of energy, it could stave off an increase.

"With rising costs, we look at places where our consumption is down and our bills are up," said Dennis Baxter, who has headed the county's green initiatives. "This has definitely had some benefits."

Due to inclement weather, a ribbon cutting for the project was canceled.