- Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - It might sound bizarre, but Springfield could soon be using its landfill to help feed people.

More than half of Springfield students - about 14,000 - are in danger of going hungry. It’s just one measure of how many people in the city might not be getting enough food, the Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/1NjJ2qQ ) reported.

Next year, Springfield could be on its way to addressing the problem by using wasted heat from the Noble Hill Renewable Energy Center at the city landfill and harnessing it to run a 4-acre commercial greenhouse.

“The timing is interesting because a lot of things are starting to align,” City Manager Greg Burris said. He said the expansion of community gardens and plans to build the greenhouse sit on one side of the equation. On the other side is the growing problem with hunger.

City leaders still need to identify a private partner in the project and figure out exactly how the greenhouse would supplement the current market, but much of the groundwork has been laid.

Almost a decade ago, in 2006, the city opened the Noble Hill Renewable Energy Center. It takes methane gas from the city’s landfill and converts it to electricity for City Utilities customers.

“It produces about three megawatts a year,” said Erick Roberts, superintendent of solid waste for the city. “That’s about 2,000 to 2,500 homes.”

Roberts said that’s only a small fraction of the utilities generation, “but it’s unique in that it’s base-load renewable.” What that means is it is producing energy constantly.

“Most of your renewables are peaking renewables,” he said. “You only get solar when the sun shines. You only get wind when the wind blows. This runs 24/7.”

The energy is used to power homes, but officials saw the opportunity for more. The engines that burn the gas for electricity put off a lot of heat - or wasted energy.

“So we began to look for ways to convert that waste into energy and to capture that for some additional benefit to use beyond renewable electricity,” Roberts said.

Springfield started to look around the country at greenhouses, including some in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa. The one in Taylorville, Illinois, which grew flowers, closed during the recession, but the others that grow food are still open.

In 2011, Springfield received a grant to do a feasibility study.

“We wanted to explore the idea, ‘Would our facilities produce enough waste to heat and support a commercial greenhouse operation, and if it did, is there a viable market for that sort of produce in the area?’” Roberts said. “The answer to both of those questions, based on the feasibility study, is ‘Yes.’”

During their research, city officials discovered that almost all produce consumed in the Springfield is imported.

“Some numbers indicate as much as 95 percent is imported, not only out of the state but in some cases outside the United States,” Roberts said. “So there is a need.”

Steve Meyer, director of the city’s environmental services department, said the city wanted to find out how a greenhouse could most benefit the community.

“What can we do for people that don’t have enough food?” he asked. “Perfect Circle (the greenhouse in Iowa) donates to food banks and homeless shelters. They really had the same approach.”

Burris, who is co-chair of the city’s Impacting Poverty Commission and has helped lead listening sessions in northwest Springfield, said food access is one of the city’s top concerns.

“We’re sensitive to not competing with another business,” he said. “We’re not trying to kick anyone out of business. There’s probably room here for a couple different things: Donating food to pantries, homeless shelters. How do you provide fresh food to people who don’t normally get fresh food?”

He said officials have talked to the Springfield Public School system about a potential contract.

“Would they be an interested market?” he asked. “That goes to help feed our school children.”

Being able to address where the food comes from is another plus, Burris said.

“So much of our food is brought in from elsewhere,” he said. “If it’s because of a natural disaster, or whatever, if that food wasn’t able to get to our community, could we feed ourselves? The answer today is probably, ‘No.’”

It’s been about four years since the city found out such a greenhouse would work here. Ted O’Neill, the former superintendent of the city’s solid waste management division, has been a supporter of the project from the beginning, when he helped put the plan together.

He said he understands the issue of prioritizing projects, but worries it will continue to be put off.

With the growing problem of food security, that could mean the lost opportunity to produce about 4 million pounds of fresh produce annually.

Meanwhile, Springfield is “exporting” more than $150 million a year to import food, O’Neill said.

“And unless we act soon, our food dependency and economic loss will continue to grow,” he said.

City officials say they’ve taken time to make sure they have the right plan in place to move forward.

“Erick (Roberts) has done his homework,” Meyer said. “It’s a successful business.”

Burris said a request for proposals could go out in about six months. Once those proposals are in, Roberts estimated it would be two years until a greenhouse is up and running.

He said that could speed up if a respondent came in “with design and funding in hand.”

Officials don’t want to rush, but acknowledge there’s a cost to waiting.

“Every day that goes by that we’re not doing this is a day that we’re losing heat that could be used on a greenhouse,” Burris said. “I think we’re entering the home stretch.”

The initial cost for a 4-acre greenhouse would be about $8 million, Roberts said.

Burris said the city has hoped to find support from the U.S. government to cover that. “We’ve explored federal grants for this,” he said. “We think it’s a really interesting marriage of energy sustainability and agriculture, so we would love to be able to find a grant.”

So far, the city has only found loans, Burris said.

“That’s not to say we wouldn’t take advantage of low-interest loans, but we’d much prefer a grant to get us kick-started just so we can hit the ground running.”

Officials say they don’t have a good estimate for the amount of money it would take annually to keep a greenhouse operating. The city only needs to cover its costs, while a private partner would expect to make money.

The most comparable greenhouse, the Perfect Circle one in Lake Mills, Iowa, is a partnership of two private businesses and makes money by selling its tomatoes to grocery stores across the region.

The company sells the food only to stores within a few hours of its greenhouse. Roberts said that company has a 1-acre greenhouse but is hoping to soon expand.

Roberts said the $8 million investment in Springfield’s greenhouse would create about 20 to 30 jobs.

There’s been no decision made on what type of crops would be produced, Roberts said, other than making sure the greenhouse grows food, not flowers or plants.

He said he believes there’s also a desire to “include diversity if feasible.”

Burris stressed several times in an interview with the News-Leader that the city doesn’t want to compete with local growers or businesses.

When city leaders first started researching the greenhouse option, they asked for input from grocery stores and farmers in the area.

“We got a lot of positive feedback,” Meyer said. “There were a lot of good ideas.”

Burris said developing a business model that keeps the city from stepping on toes is important.

“We have to find the right partner and find the right fit,” he said. “Where is that existing gap in the food chain where we’re not competing with the farmer’s markets, where there’s a demand exceeding supply and we can help fill the gap and meet that demand. The last thing we want to do is compete with private business.”

___

Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide