Driving along Platte River Road at night, it was hard to miss the eerie flame rising from South Platte Water Renewal Partners, the wastewater treatment plant just north of Dartmouth Avenue. The …
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Driving along Platte River Road at night, it was hard to miss the eerie flame rising from South Platte Water Renewal Partners, the wastewater treatment plant just north of Dartmouth Avenue.
The flame, which burned off waste gases produced by sewage treatment processes, was extinguished on Oct. 31, as the mayors of Englewood and Littleton cut the ribbon on the plant's biogas capture system.
From now on, the waste gases produced by the plant — containing atmospheric pollutants like carbon dioxide and sulfides — will be cleaned, and the methane injected into an Xcel Energy pipeline, where it will be used to heat homes and produce power.
The system is the first of its kind in Colorado, said plant director Pieter Van Ry at a ribbon cutting ceremony.
“This is a huge leap not just for our facility, but for our industry as a whole,” Van Ry said.
The biogas project is the culmination of more than two years of planning and work by plant staff, Van Ry said, as well as by Englewood and Littleton, which jointly own the plant. Each city paid half of the project's $8 million price tag, though Littleton finance director Tiffany Hooten said the final tally may come in below that, once all the invoices are in.
The plant serves 300,000 customers across a wide swath of the south metro area, Van Ry said. The biogas project will reduce the plant's annual carbon dioxide output by 5,000 metric tons a year, according to projections.
Seeing the project come to fruition was a thrill for Jan Brown of the Citizens Alliance for a Sustainable Englewood, or CASE, a grassroots group that championed the biogas project.
“This is fabulous,” Brown said. “We'd like to leave a cleaner planet for future generations, and burning methane wasn't doing anybody any good.”
The project will generate revenue by selling the gas to Xcel under the auspices of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, according to previous reporting by Colorado Community Media. The program, begun under the administration of President George W. Bush, calls for energy producers to buy renewable fuel sources.
Biogas is sold in units called RINs, for “renewable identification numbers.”
Initial reports presented by Carollo Engineers, which built the system, to the cities in 2017 used a RIN price of $2.50 per unit to predict a payback time of four years. RINs are currently trading at 90 cents, said Sarah Johnson, the director of renewable natural gas projects for Blue Source LLC, which is serving as the plant's broker to sell RINs.
Johnson said RIN prices are under a dollar amid market oversupply and skepticism, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency has gotten “more lenient” in granting waivers to smaller refineries and energy producers, allowing exemptions from the terms of the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Still, Johnson said, market analysts predict a RIN price of $2.20 to $2.25 per unit in 2020. The Renewable Fuel Standard is currently slated to run through 2022, at which time it will come up for renewal.
Current projections show the project paying itself off in five to seven years, said Blair Corning, the plant's deputy director of environmental programs.
Even if RIN prices stay low, or even if the federal government does away with the program, the plant will still be able to sell the gas, Van Ry said. Current predictions anticipate the system pulling in $1.25 million in net revenue in 2020, he said.
Beyond the money, Van Ry said, the system is a boon to the environment. The plant already captures and processes water and solids, he said, and can now capture the final product it was simply wasting.
“The revenue is a bonus,” Van Ry said. “The real thing this does is reclaim a resource. Instead of flaring this gas into the atmosphere, which contributes to Denver's air pollution, we're capturing it and putting it to use.”
The project is also a positive step for Englewood's Energy Action Plan, which calls for the city government to reduce its energy use by 1% per year until 2030, said Englewood Mayor Linda Olson.
“It's just a win-win,” Olson said.
Biogas is a move in the right direction for the natural gas industry as a whole, said Luke Litteken, Xcel Energy's vice president of gas operations.
“We've got a lot of interest in getting greener,” Litteken said, adding that the plant's biogas project is the first in the entire Xcel system, which covers more than 2 million people in seven states. “Renewable natural gas is right in front of us …. Someday we'll look back and point to this project as (Xcel's) first.”
Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman was eager to bid farewell to the flame.
“Growing up in Denver, you'd see these methane flares, and you never understood what they were,” Brinkman said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It was kind of cool. 'Look at that fire in the sky.' But you get older and you realize it's not so cool. It's an absolute honor and pleasure to cut that ribbon and watch that flame go out.”
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