Coming full circle: Chicago urban farm, biogas project to transform disadvantaged neighborhood

Good Thursday afternoon, everyone. We’re always asking for less doom and gloom and more good news. Today’s top story is a situation full of wins for a traditionally underserved Chicago neighborhood. A neighborhood group received the final funding they need for a $32 million brownfield revamp that combines urban gardening, biofuel, compost, food desert mitigation, and environmental justice. I spoke with a project organizer and a biogas industry leader about the technologies involved, what this means for the neighborhood and Chicago, and what it means for this technology in the Midwest. Details after today’s tech headlines.

Today’s headlines:


  • IndyGo, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., is partnering with Indianapolis-based Allison Transmission to add 27 hybrid buses to the city’s fleet, reports the Indianapolis Star. The partners say the technology will improve fuel efficiency up to 25% compared with diesel-fueled buses. The agency already has 15 hybrid and 52 electric buses.
  • An Iowa State University student who landed a summer internship with Tesla used her mechanical engineering skills for developing a more fuel-efficient snowmobile engine design for the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge.

***SPONSORED LINK: Minnesota heating tech startup 2040 Energy wants your opinion. Click here to take our survey and help shape the future of clean energy heating!***

🛢️ BIOFUEL: Biotech company White Dog Labs acquired the Central MN Renewables facility in Little Falls, Minnesota, which used to produce ethanol but closed last year, reports the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. White Dog develops sustainable food technology such as methods for feeding fish in aquaculture facilities.

🔬 RESEARCH: Scientists with Ames Laboratory discovered a carbon-based catalyst that eliminates the use of precious metals for molecule-splitting processes. This method could be more efficient and cost-effective for a variety of industries, including manufacturing biofuels and fuel cells.

💻 VIRTUAL EVENT: This year’s National Solar Tour will be fully virtual and takes place September 28-October 4. Organizers are specifically looking for local open house and solar tour hosts in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Now, back to the project in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, which recently received the final $13 million it needed to move forward with the $32 million brownfield transformation that will foster economic development while diverting food waste from landfill and producing renewable energy.

  • Urban Growers Collective initiated the project, which is expected to be completed in 2022. It is comprised of indoor and outdoor urban farming — including 13,000 square feet of greenhouse space — to produce about 26,000 pounds of food each year. The food will be distributed throughout the community, which is considered a food desert.
  • Green Era Sustainability will manage the on-site anaerobic digestion facility. It is expected to process 85,000 pounds of food waste and organic material each year, which will be turned into compost for use in the urban garden and throughout the community. The facility also will produce renewable natural gas from the food waste, which BP will sell.
  • The circular economy project is lauded for creating jobs and advancing environmental justice in a traditionally underserved neighborhood that has disproportionately suffered the impacts of decades of disinvestment and industrial pollution.

Fun fact: The idea for the project came about because of the Urban Growers Collective’s need for more compost for the community gardens it oversees in Chicago’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. “The energy was almost a byproduct, at least initially,” Green Era Sustainability Co-Founder and CEO Jason Feldman told me. “This truly is closed loop. We’re trying to demonstrate how to do an urban circular economy … and working together [with partners] to make a campus that adds value to the community.”

Industry perspective: Anaerobic digesters that produce renewable natural gas typically are located in rural, not urban, areas because of land costs, biomass availability, and neighbor complaints about odors. The Chicago facility will operate at a negative pressure to prevent odors from escaping to the outside. It will contain cutting-edge processing technology and is expected to reduce energy costs over time.

Organizers and advocates say this is a progressive project that, if successful in Chicago, holds potential for replication throughout the Midwest. I spoke with American Biogas Council Executive Director Patrick Serfass about the significance of this project.

“The potential here is to provide a hub of recycling while making the soil healthier to grow food and help people living in food deserts, with the benefit of renewable energy on the side,” he said. “If they can show that this is successful in Chicago, why wouldn’t other businesses try to replicate this?”

Out of 2,200 biogas facilities currently operating in the United States, about 1,300 are at wastewater facilities, 200 are at farms to process organic material and manure, and only about 70 are food waste recycling systems like the Chicago facility will be, he said.

“This is certainly an area that has potential for incredible growth. … There is the potential across the industry for almost 15,000 new systems,” Serfass said, noting that the Midwest’s access to biomass from both agriculture and cities’ untapped organic waste streams makes it ripe for housing future anaerobic digestion facilities.

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