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Municipalities interested in AWA digester project

The Altoona Water Authority may increase the size of the sludge drying machinery on its plans for a proposed digester construction project at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant to reflect a growing interest among regional municipalities in sending the sludge they produce to the facility.

Prior plans called for machinery that could handle sludge produced by the authority’s two sewer plants and by the plant in Tyrone, but recently, Hollidaysburg and Ebensburg boroughs have expressed interest, along with a municipality that wasn’t identified at a meeting Thursday — but one with a bigger operation than Altoona’s, according to Todd Musser, the authority’s director of wastewater operations.

A team from Energy Systems Group has been conducting an “investment-grade audit” at Westerly to help determine whether the proposed $29 million anaerobic digester project under an energy-conservation program of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Fund — a project on which the authority is guaranteed at least to break even, long-term — will be worthwhile.

Funded with 20-year loans, the digester would enable the authority to earn revenue for accepting “high-strength” organic waste, which the digester would process to generate methane gas, which would power dryers to turn troublesome biosolids produced by the plant into saleable mulch and possibly power a furnace to heat the plant buildings and generate electricity to run equipment — with the additional possibility of selling excess gas and electricity to their respective markets.

More and more, the central focus seems to be the drying of the biosolids, because of the increasingly strict regulations being applied to them, the increasing difficulty of finding places to spread them on farms and the high expense of landfilling them as an alternative, officials have said.

The increasing interest from outside municipalities as the project proceeds fulfills a prediction from ESG that they “would come out of the woodwork,” Musser said.

“It seems like a great thing,” said Chairman Bill Neugebauer.

The plan is to apply to Penn­vest in May for funding that could be allocated at the agency’s meeting in July, according to authority controller Gina DeRubeis.

ESG would like to begin construction in August and largely complete it by late 2021, with “ancillary stuff” coming online in early 2022, Musser said.

Musser’s monthly updates on the project have indicated that ESG is becoming increasingly convinced the project makes economic sense, although the authority has not yet formally committed to follow through with it.

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