Onions to Power New Fuel Cell

California-based Gills Onions has developed a fuel-cell-based strategy to power its facility using onion waste.

Fuel-cell friendly policies and incentives are pushing companies to adopt power using fuel cell technology. At Gills Onions in California, fuel cells are at the heart of a waste-to -energy process that produces electricity from onion peels.

“Fuel cells became the most innovative and practical solutions to meet our needs,” said Nikki Rodoni, Sustainability Director at Gills Onions, during a recent web event on their waste-to-energy system.

According to a report released recently from Breakthrough Technologies Institute and Fuel Cells 2000, the United States is shepherding the world in advancing the fuel cell industry. Rapid adoption of fuel cells is predicted in states beyond California, Ohio and Connecticut where fuel cells have been more widely used. States such as Arizona, New Mexico and Wisconsin report new fuel cell installations, the fuel cell census found.

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy wrote a forward to the Fuel Cells 2000 report and called on legislators to sustain and increase incentives for fuel cell developers.

“Investment in this industry is just and appropriate, and will yield high-paying jobs in the United States,” wrote Malloy.

Indeed, incentives convinced onion grower and processing company Gills Onions to develop a unique system using onion waste to generate electricity.

Years ago, brothers and onion farmers Steven and David Gill were asked by La Victoria, a salsa company, to dice onions for its salsa products. The Gills agreed, and now they grow and mince onions for salsa, pasta products, restaurants and the retail market. Gills Onions processes up to a million pounds of onions a day—300,000 pounds of which is onion peel from the outer layers of the vegetables.

In past years, the company threw the onion waste into surrounding fields at a cost of $450,000 per year for diesel, labor and other costs. But, the Gills searched for a new way to deal with the onion refuse after sprawl transitioned the surrounding area of Oxnard from open space to an urban setting. The onion waste had the potential to cause pest and water contamination problems.

“It was becoming a deal breaker for us to stay and keep our operation… in Oxnard,” said Rodoni.

The company partnered with the University of California, Davis to explore anaerobic digestion of onion juice. It took four years and the help of engineers and contractors, but now, the company generates its own power using biogas from anaerobic digestion of onion waste.

On a daily basis, about 300,000 pounds of onion peel is separated into juice and onion waste. (The roughly 20 tons of leftover solid waste is sent to dairy farms as feed for non-milking cows.) The resultant 30,000 gallons of onion juice is sent to a juice tank where it ferments before going into an anaerobic digestion system. The fermented onion juice creates methane gas and carbon dioxide which is then cleaned, conditioned and dried before it is fed to fuel cells to generate all the company’s electricity.

The Gills project, which cost $10.8 million, was funded in part with $3.2 million in incentives from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $2.7 million grant from Sempra Energy Self Generation Incentive Program and a $499,000 grant from the California Energy Commission.

Steve Gill, co-owner of Gills Onions, said the biggest challenge – aside from obtaining permits and approval from the fire department and city planners – was getting the bank to finance the project.

“They didn’t understand it,” said Gill during the event. “They didn’t know how to value it. We were going to spend $10.8 million dollars and they didn’t know if it was going to work.”

Therefore, the most lucrative incentives influenced the direction the engineers took in determining how to extract juice from the onion waste, he said.

Rodoni said Gills Onions estimates a five to six year payback on the project and the company has already realized about $1.1 million per year in savings from hauling and energy.

Additionally, Steve Gill, who spent about a decade working to resolve the onion waste problem at his company, extended an open invitation to other companies looking to build on their technology.

“We’re willing to share all our information with anybody who wants to look at it,” said Gill. “We don’t treat this as a trade secret or anything. We’re glad to share what we’ve done here.”



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