But the city is now casting its sewage treatment plants and the vast amounts of sludge, methane gas and other byproducts of the wastewater produced by New Yorkers, as an asset specifically, as potential sources of renewable energy.
For the citys Department of Environmental Protection, it is a shift. Until now, the agency has mainly played the role of water utility and environmental steward rather than energy producer.
But like other cities around the country looking to reduce both the costs of sewage treatment and disposal and the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in the process, New York is beginning to look at its waste as an untapped resource.
Heating fuel can be extracted from sludge and butanol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, from the algae generated by wastewater. Sewage treatment plants could sell methane gas to provide power to homes.
Such projects represent a more sustainable long-term approach to managing a wastewater treatment process that costs the city about $400 million annually, not including capital investments.
Theres nothing in here thats pie in the sky, Caswell F. Holloway, the citys commissioner of environmental protection, said of the plan. While were early in the process, its real.
New Yorkers currently produce some 1.3 billion tons of wastewater daily. The agency is seeking vendors to find uses for the resulting daily yield of 1,200 tons of sludge, a residual that is currently sent to landfills in Suffolk County, N.Y., and Virginia.
City officials, who hope to have a contract by 2013, said the solid could be harvested for gases that produce clean energy and could be used in more traditional ways, too, as fertilizer or as paving and building materials.
The biggest potential source of energy, officials said, is the methane gas from sewage treatment plants digesters. About half of the methane produced by the citys plants is already used to meet about 20 percent of the energy demands of the citys 14 sewage plants, whose electric bills run to a total of about $50 million a year. Now the city wants to market the other half, which is burned off and wasted.
Through a partnership with National Grid that is already in the works, officials said, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn is expected to add enough methane gas to the citys natural gas network next year to heat 2,500 homes.
City environmental officials said they were also seeking private partners to develop a plant to produce both electricity and heat or steam near its Wards Island Wastewater Treatment Plant the power would heat the plant and be sold to the market.
The agency is also studying proposals for solar and wind projects on Staten Island, including one that would place solar panels on the 200,000-square-foot roof of the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant, and another for a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine at the Oakwood Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant.
If what youve got is lemons, of course you try to make lemonade, said Eric. A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York who monitors the environmental agency. Its taking existing infrastructure and outfitting it to help solve other city problems.