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Authority close to digester deal

$35 million AWA project awaits word on Pennvest funding

The Altoona Water Authority hasn’t yet formally agreed to commit to a now-$35-million biosolids digester project at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant, but with its recent application for money from Pennvest, the commitment is close.

It will likely come if and when Pennvest lends the money, which the agency can do at its July 22 meeting, according to Todd Musser, director of wastewater operations, and General Manager Mark Perry.

“I don’t know a whole bunch of questions that would derail it,” Musser said after a board meeting in June.

Permits need to be issued before Pennvest will award funds, but all have been — or are in the their public comment periods, Musser said at the June meeting.

If the permitting and funding line up, the plan is to have “shovels in the ground Sept. 1,” Musser said.

The project could finish during the first quarter of 2023, he said.

The authority in July 2019 committed $825,000 for an investment grade audit by Energy Systems Group to determine project feasibility.

Since then, monthly updates from Musser to the board have been encouraging in tone.

ESG would construct the project under an energy-conservation program of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Fund, which requires ESG to guarantee that the authority will at least break even — earning enough to pay the 20-year debt service on the project.

“They’re still holding fast to the guarantee side,” Musser said.

It is ESG’s responsibility to find sources of high-strength organic waste from food processors to make the operation profitable, Musser said.

That incentivizes the company to “budget conservatively,” he said.

The operation will take the organic waste and break it down to generate biogas that when burned will dry sludge from the authority’s sewer operations as well as operations from other sewer plants, whose owners would pay for the service.

Their incentive is avoidance of increasingly expensive landfill costs.

The sludge dryer would use about 60 percent of the gas produced by the digester, Musser said in April.

That would mean excess gas would need to be burned off, several thousand cubic feet per minute, Musser said.

A proposed second phase of the project calls for contracting with a company to buy the excess gas, “scrub” it and send it into the natural gas pipeline, thereby generating revenue, Musser said.

“We’ll need to know what quantities we’re generating” before that happens, he said.

There was previous discussion about using the gas to run an electric generator to serve the Westerly plant and even to sell that to the electric grid.

If Pennvest doesn’t provide the money, it’s not likely the project would get done, Musser has said previously.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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