Ithaca City Employee Bill Rypkema

Electricity. It’s a popular feature of civilization that most people prefer to have at all times, whether Mother Nature is providing sunny 70-degree days in November or those 100-year storms that seem to be flooding major cities with regularity these days.  

Increasing local electric reliability and production is the idea of the “microgrid,” something which can provide locally generated power in isolation from far-off sources or in collaboration with the big utility providers. According to the microgrid trade press, New York State’s $40 million “NY Prize” program that describes itself as providing funding for “feasibility studies (Stage 1), audit-grade engineering design and business planning (Stage 2), and project build-out and post-operational monitoring (Stage 3)” is the program to watch in the United States. 

Tompkins County received two of the 83 $100,000-ish grants given out this summer by the NY Prize project to study microgrid infrastructure at the Stage 1 level. The studies are currently in process, with spring 2016 deadlines, and could lead to $1 million “Stage 2” grants for engineering design and business planning. Energize Ithaca, which plans on building a downtown microgrid around Center Ithaca, did not receive a feasibility study grant, but can still apply for future funding rounds. 

Tompkins County won a grant to study a microgrid based around the airport that would also include the emergency response center, the health department, the public safety building, and the health care complex. The city’s study is based on two suppliers: what’s being called the “Northside Energy District,” with generation at the wastewater treatment plant, and the “Southside Energy District” with power coming from the Emerson Chain Works site on South Hill. 

Right now, the wastewater plant has a 750-kilowatt diesel generator and 240 kilowatts in bio-gas generation capacity, according to plant manager Dan Ramer. Though the microgrid is only “a paper project right now” and the second stage is a “more detailed paper project,” Ramer hopes that the wastewater plant will become a relied-upon energy generator for the community. 

“This is really an electrical engineering exercise,” Ramer said. “It all depends on what NYSEG [New York State Electric and Gas] wants to do.” 

Our local utility multi-national, owned by Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola, does appear to have interest in changing how power is supplied to the Ithaca area. That’s because we live in a “load pocket,” according to Ramer, a place where there isn’t enough generation capacity within the area to meet the demand for energy. Planners behind this project hired energy consultants SourceOne to have “more of a peer to peer discussion with NYSEG,” Ramer said. 

Part of the microgrid concept is cogeneration, sometimes called CHP for short, which simply means using the heat from generated power rather than letting it float off to quicken the heat death of our universe. Energize Ithaca is already doing that at the 288,000-square foot South Hill business campus and the former National Cash Register plant. The wastewater plant also makes use of its heat.

What Ramer would like to see is Ithaca’s wastewater plant generating enough energy to meet its full capacity. It’s already producing 40 to 50 percent of its own power, Ramer said, and during its peak month it provided 56 percent of the power needed to clean up city sewage before it was sent into the Cayuga Inlet. 

Ramer, a biologist by trade, admits he’s a bit of a bacteria geek when showing guests around the wastewater plant. Bio-gas is produced from what’s basically an “engineered swamp,” he says, and the plant is only using one of two tanks set up to let the bacteria, the methanogens, do their work. Two other tanks that were once used for settling sit empty, too, and could be retrofitted to produce power. 

“They’re beautiful,” he says of the methanogens. “I am bit of a zealot. This is all I’ve studied … I never studied the bacteria that kill people.” 

Up on the wastewater plant’s roof, where the tanks poke out into the sky, a not-so-pleasant smell wafts through the air. That’s a fresh shipment of juice from Cornell’s carcass digester, Ramer says. Shipments of waste are offloaded into three 20,000 gallon tanks underground that feed the digesters. 

People can help feed the methanogens and produce more power by getting into the habit of separating their food waste from regular trash. That’s the area where Ramer sees lots of growth potential for power generation. 

“We can take people’s food waste, reduce their solid waste fees, and convert it into energy,” Ramer said. “I think around here, that’s a concept a lot of people can get behind.”  •

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