On a bus trip with 18 western Louisville residents to see how sustainable power plants turn waste into energy, Keith S. Hackett, assistant director of the Metro Department of Public Works, wondered aloud how much tax money could be saved.

The city of Louisville pays $22.68 per ton to dump garbage at the landfill, Hackett said.

But a power plant planned as part of the West End food hub might charge only $18 to $20 per ton, said Steve Estes, CEO of Nature’s Methane, the plant developer. That would amount to an estimated savings of $300,000 a year for the city.

The plant also could turn household yard waste and food scraps into enough methane gas to produce electricity for about 3,200 homes annually, Estes said.

The plant’s 44-foot-tall tanks would anchor the hub, an environmentally friendly food distribution complex being built by the city and nonprofit Seed Capital Kentucky at 30th and Market Streets, in the heart of western Louisville’s so-called “food desert.”

After seeing how the sealed tanks operate with little odor at midwestern plants, the western Louisville residents on the bus tour this month said they were excited about such a plant coming to their area.

“It is going to change how we do things in Louisville. It is a revolution in recycling,” said Bonnie Cole, president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association. “We don’t have anything like this in the West End, or Louisville, actually in Kentucky.”

According to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the plant at the food hub would be the first in the state to convert waste directly into energy sold to the grid.

EPA Rules: McConnell, GOP may hit brick wall

Watchdog Earth: James Bruggers blogs about Kentuckiana’s environment

“Kentucky has not had a lot of biodigesters,” said Timothy Hughes, director of the cabinet’s Division of Biofuels. “There are no rules for how to regulate them. We are figuring out how to do this on a case-by-case basis.”

In states like Kentucky, coal historically has made electricity cheaper. As a result, the appetite for alternative energy lags that seen in other countries. Denmark, for example, supplies 41 percent of its power plants via renewable sources like wind, solar and methane gas, according to Energy Monitor Worldwide. Last week it also pledged to completely eliminate fossil fuels by 2050.

The digester at the Louisville hub will capture methane gas, produced by the fermentation of organic waste. Resulting methane then can go in a pipeline straight to a utility company. Sometimes, the methane gas is piped directly into an on-site electrical generator.

The Nature’s Methane power plant, the first commercial tenant at the hub, is to occupy six of the food hub’s 24 acres. Estes said the plant, which would be nearly odor-free, could produce sufficient heat to supplement furnaces in a building or two nearby.

“Not only will we be capturing waste and returning it to the energy stream, we will be capturing heat and heating our own campus with it,” said Caroline Heine, project manager for Seed Capital Kentucky.

Estes said 20 to 22 trucks of waste would be trucked to the plant a week, likely from the Watterson Expressway directly to Muhammad Ali Boulevard, avoiding local households.

Hub seen as hope

As a food and power plant complex, the food hub not only promises to feed West End families plagued by unhealthy corner stores and fast-food outlets but also to employ and train residents in trend-setting, environmentally sustainable industries, food hub officials say. That is a powerful symbol of hope for the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, residents said.

“This is the wave of the future. This puts the West End on the cutting edge,” said Donna McDonald, owner of an embroidery business and the outgoing president of theWest Louisville Business Association.

So far, organizations that have signed letters of intent to come to the food hub include an educational demonstration farm run by the state, a commercial juicer, and KHI Foods, a food processor now canning and freezing produce near Covington. The city is in talks with other possible tenants, including the Dare to Care Food Bank and an indoor “vertical farm,” housing stacked trays of hydroponic lettuce and greens, Heine said.

Later, the food hub could include a neighborhood grocery, food co-op, or cafe, making produce affordable and building community awareness of healthy lifestyles, Heine said.

At the international Slow Money conference Tuesday, Mayor Greg Fischer said the hub aims to fix Louisville’s food class problem.

Too often, he said, the local food economy is predominated by upscale restaurants serving locally sourced, mostly gourmet menus and a growing tide of neighborhood farmers markets. Meanwhile, poor and working class families face a public health epidemic of obesity and diabetes, he said.

“There is an affection for local food. People who are well off like to go to restaurants and eat local food and see the farmer’s name on the menu and go home and feel good about themselves,” Fischer said.

“Now we are trying to scale up the system and meet the demand,” he said, adding he is much more concerned about public health than the higher cost of local food compared to bargain eggs, meats and produce mass produced by industrial agriculture or available via fast food outlets.

“This is a turbocharged effort,” Fischer said of the food hub plan, in which the city granted the 24 acres to Seed Capital Kentucky.

Passing the ‘smell test’

Before visiting the plant near Fort Wayne, Ind., earlier this month, the bus tour visited similar plants in northwestern Ohio. One, outside the village of Haviland, turns cow manure into methane.

The plant generates $400,000 worth of electricity annually, enough to power the dairy farm. The farm also sells another $300,000 worth of electricity back to the utility power grid a year, Estes told the group.

And despite the presence of a dairy barn, 2,500 cows and the manure bio-digester, there was only a slight odor, akin to when a pilot light has just gone out inside a stove.

“This is not a normal-smelling dairy farm because of this digester,” Estes said, adding that typical dairy farms smell profoundly worse “for a couple of miles around.”

A few miles away, also near Haviland, the tour bus stopped at a plastic recycling company, one of the six owners of Nature’s Methane. The 18 visitors gathered to hear Estes talk near a wind turbine and an odorless, second bio-digester.

Inside a nearby building, a humming electricity generator powered by the methane was “no louder than a train coming through,” said retired teacher Marshall Abstain, who lives in western Louisville.

“Louisville is growing up. I can get behind something like this,” said Haven Harrington, president of the neighborhood group Concerned Association of Russell Residents, also on the tour.

“What impresses me the most,” he added of the tour led by Heine, “is that a group of residents are involved from the ground up.”