Biogas Bolsterers

Realizing the versatile and valuable qualities of biogas energy, Mel Kurtz, Joshua Rapport, Amanda Bilek and Patrick Serfass strive to spread the word.
By Chris Hanson | March 24, 2014
Realizing the versatile and valuable qualities of biogas energy, Mel Kurtz, Joshua Rapport, Amanda Bilek and Patrick Serfass strive to spread the word.

People who emerge as exceptional business leaders have often come from seemingly unrelated and diverse backgrounds. Thomas Edison, for example, before creating some of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, sold newspapers and candy to passengers riding on the Grand Trunk Railroad, in the late 1800s. During that stint, Edison learned telegraphy, which spurred his interest in electricity and fostered his drive for invention.

The biogas industry is no exception to this observation; many hail from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, be it the Peace Corps, an oceanographic institute or a farm in central Minnesota. Those experiences have all, in one way or another, helped the following individuals make notable contributions to the evolving biogas industry.

Quasar energy group decided to name its company after an abundant energy source, as “quasar” refers to an extremely distant object with energy output several thousand times that of our galaxy.  The company believes quasar is one word that describes the potential of the biomass waste-to-energy industry, which it entered by storm in 2006.

A pioneer in bringing European anaerobic digestion technology to the U.S., Quasar Energy President Mel Kurtz’s trek into the sector began while he was working for a company that managed solid waste for the Akron, Ohio, wastewater treatment facility. The company faced chemical, air treatment and utility costs that exceeded $1 million each year, Kurtz says. “In order to gain control of the cost, we started looking for an alternative.”

Kurtz’s brother, Tom, took a trip to Switzerland via a recommendation from an Ohio State engineer he knew, and was amazed at the capabilities of an anaerobic digester he visited while there. “Instead of buying energy to burn energy, now we’re going to capture energy and make energy. Long story short, that’s how anaerobic digestion became a staple for the Kurtz family,” Mel Kurtz says.

Since then, using an aggregation of best available technologies from more than 30 European providers, quasar energy—previously known as Schmack Biogas—has built over a dozen U.S. digester projects, mostly in Ohio. These facilities utilize a versatile combination of feedstocks—from manure to food waste to biosolids and fats, oils and greases, to produce electricity, heat and compressed natural gas. While the technologies have been sourced from Europe, quasar’s systems run on close to 100 percent U.S.-made components, the majority of which are sourced from within Ohio.

Being president of quasar energy involves meeting and managing goals not only for himself, but also for those already involved or becoming involved in the biogas industry. “The industry is so new, there’s a big learning curve for everybody involved, such as regulators, consumers, vendors and customers,” Kurtz says. “Most of the time is spent directing people toward a perspective about this huge opportunity that they didn’t have previously.”

One of the bigger goals that quasar and Kurtz are working toward is spreading the word of biogas to potential markets and educating organizations. “The most important thing for the industry is that everything we’re doing with current generation digesters costs less than the alternatives in the marketplace,” Kurtz says. “In other words, it’s less expensive than incineration, chemical treatment and landfills. With the dilemma of the wastewater treatment plant, federal funding has declined 97 percent since 2009, which means rate payers are going to carry the burden on any plant or infrastructure modifications.”

Amanda Bilek

At the Haubenschild dairy farm in Princeton, Minn., Minnesota Project intern Amanda Bilek was introduced to anaerobic digestion while working with a project manager in the spring of 2000.
Two years later, the central Minnesota native took a permanent job within the organization, which focuses on expanding development of Minnesota’s renewable energy resources. It was then that she became more involved in anaerobic digestion. “That is sort of how I stepped in to work more on biogas systems, by taking over the implementation of outreach and education grants we had in conjunction with the anaerobic digestion system,” says Bilek.

A political science and environmental studies graduate of the University of St. Thomas,  Bilek was initially attracted to anaerobic digestion technology because of its ability to address varieties of organic waste streams and the opportunity it provided as an alternative energy resource. At the time, state universities and government organizations were researching multiple uses for the biogas, such as cleaning it up and running it through fuel cells, she says. “What has really gotten me excited about biogas over my entire career is that it has a wonderful ability to meet a variety of different uses for energy,” Bilek says. “It is a very exciting and dynamic fuel that is incredibly underutilized in the U.S.”

For seven years, Bilek continued to work with multiple biogas projects for the Minnesota Project. Then, she joined the Great Plains Institute, which focuses on public policy and working with diverse people to broker consensus agreements on energy policy in order to grow energy systems—such as biogas—that are both economically and environmentally sustainable, she says.

In 2011, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Bilek to the state’s Next Generation Energy Board. One reason for her appointment might have been due to her experience within the biogas and biomass industry, she believes. “I was incredibly honored when I got a call from the governor’s office when they were thinking of appointing me to the board.”

Bilek has also provided staffing assistance to advisory groups of the Midwestern Governors Association Energy and Jobs Initiatives including Industrial Energy Productivity, Advanced Transportation Fuels, Low Carbon Fuel Policy and Bioeconomy and Transportation.

When she isn’t tackling a looming deadline, Bilek usually begins and ends her day researching the growing news within the industry and managing her to-do lists. The rest of her day can encompass squeezing in meetings, additional research, writing and tackling priorities to keep projects moving forward.

Patrick Serfass

In 2000, the year Bilek was beginning her excursion into the biomass world, Partick Serfass was finishing his engineering degree at Dartmouth College. 

After graduation, Serfass explored several industries and had the opportunity to work on multiple diverse projects. At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, he helped design deep-water vehicles, and was also involved with a group that works with the Alvin and Jason submersibles, which are mostly recognized from Robert Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic wreck site.  In addition to working on the submersibles, Serfass had the chance to assist with mapping underwater volcanoes in the Pacific.

Following Woods Hole, Serfass moved to a company that blended architecture and engineering to produce stainless steel structures that support artistic projects at venues such as the Kennedy Center, Museum of Natural History in New York City, San Francisco International Airport and the Experience Music Project in Seattle. “The goal was to create a structure that was strong, to support the art, but was also aesthetically beautiful,” he says. “I think the projects we worked on were really amazing, but at the end of the day, I didn’t really get to work with people. I knew I wanted to do a lot more, and that’s where I started moving away from the nuts and bolts kind of engineering and more towards application and business management. That’s what led me to energy.”

Serfass became involved with the American Biogas Council when roughly 20 companies came together to form an organization to formally represent the U.S. biogas industry. While working with Technology Technician Corp., the coalition approached the company to help grow the industry. Shortly after forming the ABC, Serfass was elected executive director. “It’s kind of interesting,” he says. “I wasn’t really seeking out the biogas industry, but it was something we talked about for a long time, since it is kind of one of the underappreciated resources in the renewable energy space. We had a great opportunity when we were approached to try and grow the industry. I’m really thrilled that over the last four years, we have experienced a lot of growth, and there will be much more in the years to come.”

Future goals include getting people to think about recycling organic waste in the same way they might think about recycling other materials, such as glass, paper and plastics, Serfass says. The biogas industry had two major successes when both Connecticut and New York City passed laws to recycle more organic wastes. “Those took a year or more in the making to get to those states,” he says. “This year, we have four more states with legislation that has been introduced.”

In addition to leading a quickly growing organization, the next accomplishments involve greater outreach and education. “We spent the first couple years trying to grow so that we would have enough influence to get something to happen,” Serfass says. “We’re just now at a point where things are really starting to change within the industry. Not just because the industry is growing on its own, but because we’re able to affect change.”

Joshua Rapport

As a new biology graduate, Joshua Rapport originally planned to work in the pharmaceutical industry, but he was inspired to study biofuels and biogas during his time in the Peace Corps. He joined the organization in 2000, and worked at the island nation of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific Ocean. There, the locals had a very basic lifestyle and lacked resources that could promote their standard of living, says Rapport. “One of the few things they have to generate income is coconuts.” 

The implications of creating a coconut oil-derived biodiesel inspired Rapport to attend the University of California-Davis to study engineering. “I was looking for a way for them to make a little money and help themselves out,” Rapport says. The possibility of running diesel generators on the coconut fuel could potentially allow the village to have electricity for the first time in its history, he adds. “Turns out that would be a little harder than anticipated, which is why I decided to pursue an engineering degree.”
Because of his biology background, anaerobic digestion was a natural fit for Rapport. “So, I was interested in biofuels and engineering. I looked at several programs, and became interested in the one at UC-Davis.”

During his studies, he met Dr. Ruihong Zhang, professor at UC-Davis and the current chief technology advisor at CleanWorld Partners. Zhang and Rapport began working together on anaerobic digestion (AD) research and an AD pilot plant, which became part of the basis for CleanWorld Partners’ commercialization technology. “When I was graduating, CleanWorld was just beginning to talk about putting together a team to commercialize the technology,” he says. “So the timing worked just right.”
Rapport and CleanWorld have successfully brought on line its award-winning Sacramento BioDigester, the largest anaerobic digestion system of its kind in North America. The facility converts 25 tons of food waste per day into various forms of renewable energy including heat, electricity, and natural gas, in addition to producing fertilizer and soil enhancements for California farms. The facility is now under expansion to handle nearly 40,000 tons per year, a project that is expected to be complete by mid-2014.

There seems to be no typical work day for Rapport. When he is not catching up on emails and attending meetings, his time is spent designing projects, consulting customers and team members. When he goes home, he uses an iPad to monitor digesters and remotely make adjustments. The application he uses allows access to the AD systems from any point in the world, he says. “It’s sort of a 24/7 job here.”

Currently, Rapport and the CleanWorld team are hoping to launch two to four new units within the next year and are diligently working to improve their latest technology. “We have already proven our system works,” he says. “I think our biggest goal will be to expand to a much wider customer base.” In addition to launching new systems, the research and development team is investigating new additions to systems and value-added products from the digester residuals, he says.

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine