A long-delayed project to convert organic waste into natural gas for heating fuel at the city’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is on track to launch as early as next month, according to sources with knowledge of the effort.
The biogas project — helmed by National Grid and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection — was supposed to be complete in 2015, but has been delayed due to broken equipment, supply chain issues and other construction problems caused by the pandemic.
The cost has ballooned from $14.6 million to $47.8 million, according to a 2021 memo from National Grid.
The end is finally in sight. National Grid is running final tests and the project is expected to be up and running as early as January, according to Councilmember Lincoln Restler, whose Brooklyn district includes Greenpoint, where the plant is located.
“We’re hopeful that it will be operational in the new year,” Restler said. “We expect if there are no further issues that, in the new year, things should be functioning properly.”
The timing was confirmed by another source working on the project who declined to be named because he is not approved to speak to the media.
National Grid spokesperson Karen Young would not confirm the launch date, but said the project is in the “commissioning and testing” phase, which typically comes toward the end of building projects.
While energy companies like National Grid often describe using biogas for heating fuel as “renewable,” it may not reduce carbon emissions, especially in the near term. When burned, biogas releases a similar amount of carbon dioxide emissions as conventional natural gas.
When National Grid released its “clean energy vision” earlier this year, it detailed how the company plans to mix biogas with standard fossil fuels. The company also plans to still rely on liquified natural gas for at least another 18 years.
But incorporating biogas does find a home for waste and can ostensibly reduce some demand for fossil fuels.
Once underway, the project will realize a key promise of the popular Queens compost program.
“The completion of this project is good news for our planet, especially as we collect more and more organic material from New York City residents,” said sanitation department spokesperson Vincent Gragnani. “New Yorkers who separate their food and yard waste help to give it a second life, either as compost material for parks and gardens or as renewable energy to heat homes and buildings in our city.”
The Newtown Creek project was announced with great fanfare in 2013 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an environmental slam dunk. New York City would start sending compost to the Newtown Creek facility’s eight silver “digester” eggs. The 145-foot metallic eggs break down wastewater and organic waste into water, carbon dioxide and biogas, which is primarily methane. The eggs can take up to 250 tons of organic waste a day, and National Grid said the biogas produced by them will be purified and converted into natural gas that heats homes around the city.
The biogas has been used to heat the Newtown Creek plant’s boilers. Excess gas was “flared,” or burned off as carbon dioxide.
Critics have said flaring is another environmentally harmful emission. But Dr. Kartik Chandran, a Columbia University professor of earth and environmental engineering, said taking compost out of landfills and burning the resultant biogas is much better for the environment than allowing the organic waste to turn into methane.
Burning the biogas converts methane into carbon dioxide, which is a less harmful greenhouse gas, Chandran said. Methane doesn’t last as long in the air as carbon dioxide, but is still 25 times as potent in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Once the project launches, National Grid plans to stop the flaring.
Despite the expected launch, Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, remained jaded by the years of delays. The city’s increased collection of organic waste has resulted in more biogas being burned off as the project languished.
“It’s been a mess,” Elkins said. “They've been feeding all this extra material into the eggs. And because they're not able to capture it, they've been flaring off all this excess amount of biogas so the CO2 emissions at the plant have been higher than they would have been before this process.”
And Greenpoint residents won’t see any direct benefits, he said. The heating gas will go into National Grid’s general supply.
“It's not like people in the neighborhood are getting reduced bills or anything else,” Elkins said.