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The switch has effectively been flipped on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s groundbreaking alternative power plant that generates energy from plant and food waste.

The UW Oshkosh anaerobic dry fermentation biodigester, first of its kind in the western hemisphere, began producing energy on Oct. 3.

Gas produced as a result of decomposition of agricultural plant and food waste loaded into and stored in the facility’s airless chambers since late summer reached an optimal point for energy-production startup. On Oct. 3, the faculty, staff and student team running the plant activated on-site turbine engines, combusting the gas and harvesting and selling energy.

The renewable energy facility is expected to initially produce up to 5 percent of the campus’ electricity and heat.

Greg Kleinheinz, UW Oshkosh professor of microbiology, said the biodigester has been running in an off-and-on mode over the course of its startup. Plant overseers continue to work with partner engineering firms to calibrate computer software and to fine tune energy production.

“The facility is producing quite a bit of gas right now, so it is a computer-control issue and not a mechanical or biological issue limiting the CHP (combined power and heat) usage,” Kleinheinz said.

Energy produced by the power generation is being sold back to the grid through regional utilities. The revenue realized over time will vary based on the level of gas production and power purchase agreements with Wisconsin Public Service, Kleinheinz said. It will ultimately support student scholarship and academic program enhancements at UW Oshkosh.

Students continue to play an important role in the plant’s start up and ongoing operations, particularly in connection with the institution’s Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC). The biodigester also serves as a hands-on learning laboratory, where biology and environmental studies students are able to collaborate with faculty and staff and pursue research.

“Being involved early on has truly been an eye opening experience as to what real research is like,” said Sarah Burmeister, a microbiology student who has been involved with the biodigester project since before its startup.

“It is amazing to know that the work we are doing will lead to sustainable energy, but it has not gone without hard work from many people,” Burmeister said. “Every step of the way has had its own trials, which we have worked through as a group to keep this project moving forward. This project has shown me how important analytical chemistry is, even in the field of biology. It is wonderful to watch the project finally come to life.”

Ryan Bartell, a student also working at the energy plant, said it has been valuable to see the strong connection between biodigester science and community impact.

“The biodigester is a perfect example of the application of science to a real world problem, and seeing both the logistical and scientific sides of the solution has been a terrific learning experience,” Bartell said.

“As a student, I don’t have a vast background in alternative energy processes, so every point of the process was something new,” he said. “The biodigester helped to make me realize the importance of collaboration and communication in science.”

Kleinheinz said more student positions are also sought through the University’s Student Titan Employment Program (STEP), a program providing students high-impact learning opportunities that advance the University while also offering them income to offset the costs of continuing their UW Oshkosh educations.

“We have students coming from the ERIC lab to assist with operations, sampling and operation of the facility,” he said. “They have been involved in all aspects of the facility except for loading material with heavy equipment. We anticipate more student assistance as we move past the startup phase of operation.”

Soon, campus-based food waste collected from student dining halls and other sources will be loaded into the biodigester, another example of UW Oshkosh’s everyday commitment to sustainability. Biodigester operators are working out the logistics to efficiently transport campus food waste to the plant, located on the south side of the Fox River.

While there is still work to get the biodigester plant operating at maximum efficiency, Kleinheinz said its startup has provided a feeling of satisfaction given the investment of time, UW Oshkosh Foundation resources, design and engineering talent in collaboration with BIOFerm Energy Systems of Madison, and faculty, student and staff expertise.

“It is a great feeling for all of us,” Kleinheinz said. “There are so many people who have put hundreds of hours into this project. It is really a testament to those people at UW Oshkosh and our BIOFerm partners that we are at the cusp of full operation of such a novel bioenergy facility in the United States.  It shows an excellent model of how academic institutions can be creative and entrepreneurial while fulfilling their education missions in an environmentally and sustainable way.”

The project has already earned national accolades and been featured in energy industry publications around the country.

In September, UW Oshkosh received the 2011 Silver Waste-to-Energy Excellence Award from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) for development of the biodigester and other innovative and successful efforts in solid waste management.

The UW Oshkosh Foundation is also in the process of examining and developing the financing and engineering plans and partnership for a second “wet” anaerobic biodigester at Rosendale Dairy, the state’s largest dairy farm in Pickett owned by Milk Source.

This larger plant would produce energy from the methane gas produced in the decomposition of dairy cow manure. Operating as a remote UW Oshkosh biology teaching, learning and research laboratory, the project would also feature a public education center and proposes to channel revenues from the sale of energy into student scholarships, campus laboratory enhancement and expansion and creation of an innovative center on rural community development.

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