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Solar Energy wastewater treatment plants are community resources

Published on August 23rd, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Sewage Treatment Plant

August 23rd, 2010 by  

wastewater treatment plants are community resourcesWith great sewage comes great responsibility, so it’s no suprise that some of the more forward thinking cities in the U.S. are beginning to transform their wastewater treatment facilities into community resources. The latest example comes from Olympia, Washington, where a sewage treatment plant features a brand new LEED Platinum-aspiring education center complete with a green roof, ornamental pond and fountain sculpture fed by reclaimed water from the treatment plant. The reclaimed water also irrigates the roof and grounds, and is used to operate toilets in the new facility, so visitors get a mini-lesson in wastewater reclamation with every flush.


Another example is the gigantic Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant in New York City, which added a public nature walk to its grounds in 2007.  Just this spring,  Newtown Creek opened a new visitor center featuring a water sculpture sculpture by famed artist Vito Acconci (as if the plant’s dramatic digester eggs needed any more help!). The  city plans to make multi-purpose rooms in the visitor center, along with their sweeping views of the facility, available for community organizations and other groups.

Wastewater Treatment Plants as Resource Recovery Centers

This is where the fun begins.  Municipal wastewater is a rich trove of organic materials that can yield a surprising number of treasures. There’s fertilizer or soil enhancer, of course, which can be processed from dried sewage sludge that has zero or minimal industrial content. The effluent can be used for flushing toilets or general cleaning purposes (just ask the U.S Navy about reclaimed wastewater!) and for irrigating land including golf courses.  Then there’s biogas, for another thing.  Bioplastics (potentially), for yet another. And yes, even real gold is being recovered from sewage. So Goldschlager fans, drink away – it’s all good!

Wastewater Treatment Plants: It Just Keeps Getting Better

Because they cover a lot of ground, many sewage treatment plants are also ideal for solar energy installations,and perhaps to some extent wind turbines or geothermal installations. There may also be some potential for recovering hydrokinetic energy from wastewater as it flows through the treatment plant. The Olympia and New York City treatment plants are also providing a community education resource that will help develop a new generation that knows the true meaning of “waste not, want not.”

Image: NYC skyline from sewage treatment plant by dandeluca on flickr.com.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Michael Dalton

    How much would it cost to build a plant like the one in the state of Washington i know it sounds funny but I am for real Thank You Michael

  • Charles Randall

    I am apalled at the arrogance of your strapline at the top “We are as Gods”, this is offensive to many Christians and people of other faiths.
    There are so many examples in literature, both Greek and Christian, where this kind of hubris leads to disaster, that I would have thought you would not wish for that association of ideas.


    Charles Randall

    • Tina Casey

      Charles: I respect your point of view but from my perspective, the full tagline “Cleantech innovation: we are as gods so we might as well get good at it” is open to interpretation. Personally, I don’t think there is an ounce of hubris in that line. I take it mean that, for whatever reason, we humans have gained the ability to exercise some pretty incredible creative powers, and along with that comes the realization that in some respects we hold the fate of the world in our hands. That is a fact, not a wish or a dream, and there is no sense in denying it or refusing to see the consequences of human action. As a side point, the word “gods” is not capitalized in the tagline, as it is in your comment.

  • Hi Tina–

    I just read your article about sewage treatment plants, “Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Sewage Treatment Plant,” and must say that I’m happy to see wastewater treatment facilities getting some much needed attention. I don’t think the general public fully understands all the good things these treatment plants do. You included a lot of great examples in your article, and I want to throw one more your way–energy generation. You’ve written about the potential value of biogas to energy–predominantly in the agricultural context–but many wastewater treatment plants across the US are using anaerobic digestion to create biogas, and then simply flaring the gas into the atmosphere, untreated and unutilized. With a relatively simple conditioning process, these facilities can create an energy source that is free, clean, reliable and readily available. By implementing a biogas conditioning solution, waste treatment facilities can turn methane, a dangerous air pollutant, into a carbon-neutral, sustainable fuel.

    A great example of this is the City of Tulare, CA. In 2006 Tulare took on the task of upgrading its wastewater treatment facility and cleaned up its biogas to cut down on greenhouse emissions to comply with increasingly tough California pollution standards and to find a more economical way to power the facility. The facility used fuel cells to convert the unwanted biogas into energy that powers the plant. Fuel cells require absolutely clean, untainted gas to operate, which required a carefully designed biogas conditioning system to protect the facility’s investment and ensure reliable, clean power flowed continuously from the project. The installation saved the facility more than $135,000 in energy costs in the first year. Tulare also won a 2009 Clean Air Excellence Award from the Environmental Protection Agency, became an EPA Green Power Partner, and in 2009 was ranked as 17th largest onsite renewable energy producer in the U.S.

    I work for Applied Filter Technology–the pioneer in the biogas-to-energy field–and would be happy to talk to you further about the challenges facing wastewater treatment plants, how they can transition from flaring and polluting to creating a truly renewable energy source, and share some customer stories with you. Let me know if you are interested.


    Tim Robinson, Chief Operating Officer, Applied Filter Technology


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