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Company producing clean fuel in Michigan

With gasoline at the pump reaching record highs nationwide in the U.S., the labors of a small company in Flint might be about to start paying off.

Swedish Biogas International AB (SBI) is just weeks away from producing biogas, a low-cost alternative fuel, at its new $7-million biogas-processing facility adjacent to the city's wastewater treatment plant.

Sludge waste from the plant is being loaded into the biogas-processing facility, but it will take up to two months once loaded before it is ramped up to full production, according to Thomas Guise, CEO of SBI's North American headquarters at Kettering University's Center for Innovation in Flint.

Biogas is a clean fuel made from human, farm and forest waste products, which can be upgraded and used to heat homes, run electrical turbines and power vehicles.

Since 2008, Swedish Biogas has worked closely with Kettering, as well as local city and transportation officials, to make its Flint facility a clean-energy model and demonstration site in Michigan.

"Hopefully, we can become the Silicon Valley of biogas," said Guise, who has collaborated with the Kettering lab, designated by the state as a Center of Energy Excellence, to advance biogas and biomethane production.

In the first phase of production, the biogas produced will be upgraded and used at the wastewater treatment plant. The plant's sludge, which now is incinerated, will be loaded instead into the biogas digester for an annual cost savings of $200,000 for the city.

The second and third phases, to be completed by early 2012, will see electricity generation and gas fuel, Guise says, using codigestion of both municipal and agricultural waste.

Biogas can be upgraded to 98 percent pure methane, which becomes equivalent to natural gas extracted from the ground. Then it can be used to power vehicles and heat homes, Guise said.

He says the collaborative process between SBI and Kettering has been beneficial, allowing work on problems that, if solved, would be good for the biogas industry.

"At the end of the day, we're looking for better gas production," he said.

Guise says he values the "fresh minds" of the Kettering co-op students who work in the lab with SBI's engineers and scientists.

"The future is always with young people," he said. "So to have young people looking at future energy and starting their own companies or working for us is good. They've done good work for us."

Since 2010, SBI has been active on an energy committee, made up of local stakeholders, that has been working to help make Flint a regional economic leader in green technology and zero waste.

"We're talking about how we can be green together," Guise said.

One of those stakeholders is the area's Mass Transit Authority. Over the next six years it plans to convert its entire fleet of vehicles — from small vans to 40-foot buses — to run on natural gas.

Once production at the plant begins, Guise says, the goal first is to upgrade the biogas for use at the wastewater treatment plant, then move to selling it locally and as a partner with the city.

Meanwhile, SBI already has penned a contract with General Mills for food waste to feed into a second codigestion, biogas-processing facility to be constructed at a municipal wastewater treatment plant in Reed City, about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids on the west side of the state. He hopes to have it up and running in late 2012.

"We want to grow as much as possible. I'm excited about the future," said Guise, who is in talks for two or three other sites as well.

A high hurdle for clean-energy production remains basic economics. To sell a product, it must be priced competitively.

"Wind, solar and biogas can't compete (price-wise) against coal-fired power," said Guise, suggesting that the battle must be taken to policymakers and into the arena of public opinion.

"If we want clean energy, we're going to have to look at some clean policies to keep it going."

While the world energy crisis in the early 1970s set Sweden on the path to being a recognized leader in alternative energy, the U.S. has made "almost zero progress since 1972," he says.

As prices rise at the gas pump, so does American enthusiasm for green-energy policies. But, Guise said, he has never seen "general awareness" as high as it is today.

He hopes SBI will play a part in helping make Michigan energy independent and have cleaner air.

"I would hope that, five or 10 years down the road, people look to Michigan for biogas," Guise said.

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

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