Made in Brooklyn: Food to Fuel

Newtown Creek Digester Eggs

Newtown Creek’s Wastewater Treatment Plant has long been integral to New York City, providing key waste management services since 1967. It is best known for the architectural and technological innovations installed in 2010, featuring eight signature steel-clad anaerobic digester eggs that turn human waste into biofuel. Car commuters along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway have likely seen the eggs lit by a captivating blue display created by artist Hervé Descottes of L’Observatoire International; the plant itself was designed by Ennead Architects in collaboration with three engineering firms. Last week, project leaders Anthony Fiore (Department of Energy, NYC Department of Environmental Protection), Greg Clawson (Ennead Architects) and Dan Hagen (Waste Management, Inc.) spoke about the history of the plant, the innovations of 2010, and the latest cutting-edge program launching at the site: the introduction of food waste to the digester stream.

The plant at Newtown Creek has been producing methane through its anaerobic digestion process since 2010, but the addition of food waste changes the equation. Organic material can produce three times more methane per unit of volume than sewage, so the addition of food waste to the digestion process has the potential to make a big impact on DEP’s carbon footprint. Their 14 wastewater plants are responsible for almost 90% of the department’s energy use, and contribute 94% of their carbon emissions. Previously, the digesters could make up for about 30% of this; the addition of food waste increases this to 60-70 percent of DEP’s electrical demand.

In the initial food waste pilot run last year, the plant processed 1.5 tons per day. By the end of 2015, Newtown Creek will launch their three-year plan to boost processing capacity from 50 tons per day to 250 per day. The plant could process up to 500 tons per day at full capacity, cutting carbon emissions by 90,000 metric tons per year (the equivalent of removing 19,000 vehicles off the road).

Newtown Creek Digester Eggs

The program is a result of a private-public partnership with Waste Management, which provides food waste in a form that is readily injectable into the wastewater sludge, and National Grid, which will purify excess biogas to pipeline quality and add it to the local natural gas distribution network for residential and commercial use. Prior to the partnership, the plant used only 40 percent of the biofuel produced to power operations, flaring the excess gas into the atmosphere. DEP’s Anthony Fiore explained, “It’s one of the first projects in the country where gas from a wastewater treatment plant will be put into a natural gas distribution system for community benefit.” At full capacity, the project will produce enough energy to heat 5,100 homes a day.

The New York Times reports that in the US, about 60 million metric tons of food goes to waste, the equivalent of $162 billion each year. In addition to wasting money and perfectly edible food, Americans are also squandering all the water, chemicals, energy, and land that went into producing that food. In landfills, rotting food accounts for almost 25 percent of national methane emissions. Newtown Creek is one of only a few wastewater treatment plants incorporating food waste into their digestion process, and it’s likely the only wastewater treatment plant that emphasized art and design as well.

Beyond energy production, the project team sought to simplify the industrial aesthetic and incorporate engaging design elements into an otherwise typically lackluster part of the urban landscape.  Deep open corridors run through and around the site, so passersby can see through the plant to the city beyond. The result is a visually appealing and accessible landmark that enhances the Newtown Creek waterway and engages the surrounding community.

“This project really is a model for how you integrate renewable energy into dense urban environments,” said Hagen. 

About the author

Faith Nicholas
Public Programs Department Intern.