December 4, 2022

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Independent energy: Interfaith Food Ministry fundraises to explore zero waste option

Interfaith Food Ministry’s Phil Alonso, left, and local farmer John Pomeroy stand next to a biochar machine installed in a trailer. Biochar is a way to compost materials that would otherwise be difficult to breakdown.
Photo: Elias Funez

Interfaith Food Ministry collaborates with various agencies to collect and distribute food to just under 600 families in Nevada County on a weekly basis.

Now, Executive Director Phil Alonso said the ministry is taking the same collaborative, forward-thinking approach to diverting inedible organic material.

IFM’s excess food is generally fed to animals, Alonso said, but said the passage of Senate Bill 1383 two years ago and its subsequent implementation this past January inspired him and other local agencies to explore all possible means of compliance with the sustainably oriented piece of legislation.



“California adopted the bill a few years ago, but this is the first year counties have to come into compliance or face a fine from the state,” Alonso said, adding “and it is a substantial fine.”

Cue John Pomeroy, part of the Nevada County Food Policy Council’s steering committee and one of a number of spokesmen for the biochar and biodigestion causes on the San Juan Ridge — a farmer who Alonso met during one of the council’s meetings.



Alonso said conversations on the council about food waste diversion are years old, adding that he observed an increased impetus to support creative waste diversion solutions now that legislation is forcing agencies’ hands.

“We would like to do a crowdfunding campaign to purchase a biodigester that would process the green waste into hydrogen to use in fuel cells to provide backup power for the food ministry, but also to fuel a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle,” Alonso said. “There are lots of options with the outputs.”

BIODIGESTER

Alonso said the biodigester would be in a 40-foot shipping container on IFM’s property. The machine would help the nonprofit become energy independent, Alonso said, adding that the ministry cannot do its mission when PG&E’s power goes out.

A before and after of the biochar process is shown. Biochar can be used in gardens.
Photo: Elias Funez

The container would include three separate machines, Pomeroy said.

“The biodigester produces liquid fertilizer and methane,” he added. “The methane powers a fuel cell — a hydrogen fuel cell — that powers another machine, an electrolysis — that separates hydrogen from water molecules and stores in tanks, then that hydrogen can be used to power the fuel cell — that big, circular system.”

Pomeroy said biochar, which can be created with a machine he’s been touring around with or a burn pile under the right conditions, is put into a digester with food waste because “stabilized methane is easier to scrub into hydrogen.”

“When it actually goes into a digester, the finished product is of high value and less stinky,” Pomeroy said, adding that one extra benefit is that “biochar sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.”

There is no shortage of the materials required to create biochar — “branches and woodchips and stuff” — Pomeroy said, given the number of felled trees and debris that ornate the region’s topography.

Pomeroy is already educating the community about the first piece of equipment necessary to begin “to divert waste streams to resource streams,” Alonso said, referring to biochar as a fertilizing soil supplement.

Biochar is also a necessary ingredient to stabilize biodigestion, Pomeroy said, adding that the three-machined system is called a HORSE, or High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical Output.

“It processes 40 tons a year of green waste and converts to 30 kilowatts of power,” he said.

John Pomeroy and Phil Alonso of Interfaith Food Ministry load the biochar production trailer.
Photo: Elias Funez

The total system, including the biodigester unit as well as anticipated permitting costs and initial start up operations, will cost $500,000, Alonso said.

Those interested in supporting the biodigesting cause can already donate on the ministry’s website — http://www.interfaithfoodministry.org. There is a drop-down option on the nonprofit’s donation page that reads “Zero Waste Projects.”

Alonso said he and Pomeroy’s connection has been mutually beneficial.

“Interfaith Food Ministry is a natural partner,” Alonso said. “We’re already a hub for receiving donated food from grocery stores, from the cafes, bakeries.”

Alonso said those are just a few subcategories of food waste generators IFM already partners with, and using those relationships to help everyone in the county come into compliance is in the nonprofit’s interest and mission.

“We are rescuing the food that can be used for humans first to feed the hungry, to address food insecurity — it’s a natural sort of partnership and role for us to play,” Alonso said.

IFM is already collecting e-waste and other recyclables, Alonso said.

“As a nonprofit, we’re essentially a gift-based economy,” Alonso said. “People are coming for service to get food and to fund it by donations and grants — it’s another natural fit.”

Alonso said the organization needs to try the process out on a natural scale to see if the pilot project — biodigester and all — is feasible.

If so, Alonso said the small nonprofit would have the ability to process waste the same way Waste Management hopes to, given the construction of its $10 million new facility.

“We could do it on a micro-scale“ if trucks brought organic waste to IFM as a designated drop-off location, Alonso said. ”We’re small enough to stay under the threshold of more complicated regulations that make it hard for a small business to be profitable.“

David Garcia, with the county’s Solid Waste Department, said Senate Bill 1383 is an unfunded mandate.

“Even by (the state’s) own definition or analysis,” Garcia explained, “there’s something like a lack of 100 to 200 processing facilities in the state that need to be built” in order to expect compliance in the first place.

NATURAL HUB’

The ministry has established relationships with pig and goat farmers in the area who pick up excess or rotting food, Alonso said, allowing IFM to close the proverbial loop and expand its capacity as “a natural hub for rescued food.”

“The agricultural community will ultimately benefit from healthier soils to grow our foods in and to pasture our animals in,” Alonso said. “You create a whole circle so there is no linear line where there is waste.”

Alonso anticipates more individuals will seek out ways to divert food waste if the legislation is enforced.

“We expect a large increase with new legislation coming down,” Alonso said. “There’s going to be individual households trying to do something with their food waste.”

The shift will follow a communitywide educational campaign and rigorous experimentation with method because “people won’t do it if you make it too hard.”

For Alonso, the re-education starts at home.

“We compost at our house,” Alonso said. “My daughters are 9 and 11. They’re conditioned to throw away everything. We remind them, ‘We don’t throw food away’ — I get that it will be a behavior change.”

Alonso said he imagined a process involving individuals bringing full buckets of compost on a weekly basis.

“We’re trying to show people how they can get energy independence,” Pomeroy said.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at [email protected]