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What a permitting debacle in Fremont could mean for biodigesters across Michigan

The feedstock tank and digesters at Fremont Regional Digester. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
The feedstock tank and digesters at Fremont Regional Digester. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with IPR and Grist, a nonprofit independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

• Michigan’s largest commercial food waste digester is shutting down after a permit dispute with the state.

• Supporters say digesters are a good way to deal with organic waste and meet clean energy goals; critics disagree.

• The outcome of this dispute could have implications for water regulation and energy production across Michigan.

A semi truck filled with pallets of energy drinks pulls up outside the Fremont Regional Digester, about a half hour from Muskegon.

The cargo joins several semiloads that have already been delivered and await digestion. Stacks of drinks line the delivery bay and twist around the corner of the facility.

“It would all just be stuck in a landfill and not used,” said Leon Scott, the facility manager at Fremont Regional Digester.

That might soon be the case. This is one of the last deliveries the Fremont digester will receive. It’s shutting down after a years-long argument with state regulators.

The ultimate outcome of that disagreement could have implications for clean water and clean energy in Michigan.

How it works

Digesters are a growing industry in Michigan. They take organic matter — like food waste or manure — and break it down in an oxygen-free environment. The gases that process emits are burned to generate electricity.

The Fremont facility does that mostly with manufacturing food waste – milk jugs, energy drinks, baby food, jellies and juices that are too close to expiration date to sell.

Those products, which often come in containers, are shredded. Then the contents are shuttled into a waiting tank before heading to three giant tanks full of specialized bacteria, which break down the food and excrete biogas — a combination of methane, carbon dioxide and a few other gases.

In Fremont, that gas is burned onsite to generate electricity and then sold to the grid. That process is a point of pride for Scott.

“That engine — you hear that? That’s the generator running,” he said. “That’s putting power into the grid right now. So, that’s a good sound. That’s a green sound.”

Leon Scott, the facility manager at Fremont Regional Digester, operates the computer that controls the facility's engine. The facility generated its own electricity and sold enough to the grid to power 3,500 local homes. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
Leon Scott, the facility manager at Fremont Regional Digester, operates the computer that controls the facility's engine. The facility generated its own electricity and sold enough to the grid to power 3,500 local homes. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

Falling silent

Fremont Regional Digester operators say it processes over 100,000 tons of food waste each year, diverting it from landfills and powering about 3,500 local homes.

Now, the facility is shutting down. The issue isn’t with the food waste or the energy, it’s with digestate — the liquid, nutrient-rich byproduct left over from converting food into biogas.

Generate Upcycle, the San Francisco-based company that owns the digester, can’t agree with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy on which permit it should operate under.

Since Generate Upcycle acquired the digester in 2017, it has operated under an agricultural use authorization though the state’s solid waste program. That’s allowed the company to spread the nutrient-rich digestate on nearby farm fields.

But in 2021, EGLE notified the company that its permit had to be renewed as a groundwater discharge permit within its Water Resources Division. The consistency of the digestate was fluid enough to be considered liquid waste, EGLE said, so spreading it needed to be more carefully regulated.

That decision has been an ongoing problem for Generate Upcycle.

“Fundamentally, our material, our process, our product, is not something that the water resources group has permitted before,” said Dan Meccariello, the vice president of operations at the company. “We are very much a square peg in a sea of round holes.”

Digestate contains nutrients, minerals and metals that can be good for the land and for crop growth, but if it’s applied wrong or if there’s too much of it, it can harm water quality and cause many of the same problems as fertilizer runoff.

For more than two years now, Generate Upcycle has received extensions on its current permit from EGLE.

But late last year, the company announced its decision to idle the Fremont digester. Company officials say that with the financial burdens created by the new permit requirements, it no longer makes sense to continue operating the facility.

In a statement, EGLE said it’s “supportive of anaerobic digestion and the energy it produces,” as well as the fact that it reduces food waste. But officials said the department “is also statutorily mandated to ensure that environmental and public health is protected when facilities land apply digestate on farm fields.”

EGLE says it wants to mitigate the risks that misapplying liquid digestate poses to surface and groundwater. Those risks include the development of harmful algal blooms, excess aquatic plant growth and the potential for other materials in the digestate to contaminate farm fields and food production.

But Generate Upcycle says it’s already following nutrient management rules under the solid waste program.

“The current form of the draft [groundwater discharge permit] that we have today — what we have seen … does not work for us,” Meccariello said.

Others think the issue goes beyond water quality concerns.

"I don't think regulators are prepared to really wrap their arms around this new industry in a way that takes into account all the potential environmental and public health and quality of life impacts.”
Carrie La Seur
legal director, FLOW

The bigger picture

The Fremont decision could set the stage for how Michigan regulates other digesters, including the ones that burn manure.

“That matters because when it's been done one way the first time, it very easily becomes the way it's done every time after that, so we need to look carefully,” said Carrie La Seur, the legal director of the nonprofit For Love of Water in Traverse City.

Fremont was one of 11 active digesters in Michigan, according to EGLE.

Over the past two years, the state has seen some of the most robust manure digester development in the country, the news outlet Bridge Michigan reported, second only to California.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2022, manure-based digesters reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 10.43 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

And clean energy incentives have helped biogas operations expand. The federal government promoted biogas in its push for methane reduction in 2021. And these facilities are considered sources of renewable energy in the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

In Michigan, recent clean energy legislation also says digesters produce a “renewable energy resource.”

But FLOW and other environmental groups believe the push for digesters amounts to “greenwashing” — misleading the public about their environmental benefits.

“Huge amounts of taxpayer money and support are going into this large build out,” La Seur said. “And I don't think regulators are prepared to really wrap their arms around this new industry in a way that takes into account all the potential environmental and public health and quality of life impacts.”

While digesters do capture methane, which is around 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, critics say designating them as sources of clean energy encourages more livestock production. That industry is the country’s biggest source of human-caused methane emissions and can harm water quality.

Digesters take the gas that waste emits, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, and convert it to electricity or “renewable natural gas” that can be shipped to other areas. And facilities across the country are increasingly turning to the latter, which environmental groups say is a problem.

The nonprofit group Food and Water Watch released an investigation last month that laid out a close relationship between industrial farming and oil companies. The report said that digester technology “necessitates extending the life of fossil fuel infrastructure, an intentional delay to a green transition.”

Christy McGillivray, the legislative and political director for Sierra Club Michigan, said we shouldn’t consider biogas renewable.

“We're talking about building out infrastructure that will incentivize as much gas production as possible,” she said.

Unlike some of these other facilities, Fremont isn’t selling natural gas, and it's digesting food waste, not manure. But the debate around its permitting has become part of the broader discussion of clean energy. At the end of December, a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers sent a letter to EGLE expressing concern that changing the Fremont digester’s permitting requirements would hinder its operations.

The legislators said digesters produce “clean energy” and are thus important to Michigan’s energy transition.

“The 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to burning 112 million pounds of coal) currently prevented from entering the atmosphere will no longer be captured,” they wrote.

While digester development is growing due largely to clean energy incentives, La Seur said, regulations haven’t caught up.

“There are major energy companies that are trying to expand a clean energy portfolio to counterbalance their traditional oil and gas operations because they're feeling a lot of pressure from climate regulations,” La Seur said. “So we're becoming part of a really massive industrial build-out without treating it that way.”

Leon Scott, the Fremont digester’s facility manager, said his company is committed to clean energy and food waste reduction goals, and they’ve worked hard to mitigate any risks to water quality.

For now, they’re at a standstill with EGLE and are letting staff go and powering down the facility.

Scott, who grew up in Fremont, said the decision to close has been heartbreaking.

“It's green energy. It meets Michigan's climate agenda 100 percent,” he said. “But we can't come to an agreement on how to manage the byproduct. And that's what's heartbreaking.”

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.
Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.