MMA Innovation Award winner, 2011

Until recently, anaerobic digestion – the process through which sludge and other forms of waste are converted into energy – was practical only for very large operations, such as the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor.

But thanks to technical refinements, state and federal assistance, and quick work by local officials and contractors, Fairhaven is on schedule to complete the first smaller-scale sludge-to-energy plant in Massachusetts.

The anaerobic digester will save the town money in two ways: by generating heat and electricity that will reduce the wastewater treatment plant’s energy costs, and by limiting the amount of sludge that Fairhaven pays to have shipped to an incinerator in Cranston, R.I. Annual savings are expected to total $300,000, according to town officials.

In 2009, after the completion of a feasibility study, Fairhaven officials had to work quickly to meet a September deadline for obtaining federal stimulus funds channeled through the Department of Environmental Protection.

According to Fairhaven Public Works Superintendent Bill Fitzgerald, the town did not learn about the availability of federal stimulus money until late July of that year. He credits the town’s consultant, Brown and Caldwell, with superb work in completing a complex application for the federal funds under a tight deadline. Fitzgerald said the project also benefited from assistance from state Rep. William Straus, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and Fairhaven’s Finance Committee members, among others.

“Success has a thousand fathers,” Fitzgerald said. “This one really, really did.”

By January, the anaerobic digester tanks were being erected; they are expected to go online as an energy source sometime this summer.

Although it has been only 18 months since Fairhaven began planning the project, Fitzgerald said, the obstacles to creating such systems have declined, thanks to the increasing acceptance of smaller-scale anaerobic digestion as a viable and affordable technology.

Anaerobic digestion, he added, doesn’t need to rely on wastewater sludge alone. One garbage-disposal company has begun running full-page ads in wastewater trade magazines touting the use of food waste as the raw material for digester tanks.

For more information, contact Bill Fitzgerald at (508) 979-4030.

The winners of the annual Kenneth Pickard Municipal Innovation Awards were recognized at the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 22.