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Science and the Environment

Tracking Trash Series Part 3: Greenhouse Proposed at Noble Hill Landfill

Imagine a 30,000-square-foot greenhouse powered by what would otherwise be waste energy.  The greenhouse would be capable of generating one million pounds of tomatoes each year. 

At least two Springfield city officials hope it will soon become reality.

The city’s Office of Environmental Services received a $40,000 grant from the Department of Natural Resources, which the city matched with $20,000 from its Solid Waste Management Division Enterprise Fund to do a feasibility study for the greenhouse.

Ted O’Neill, superintendent of solid waste management for the City of Springfield, explains what they’ve learned so far…

"We found out that our instincts are correct--that there's certainly a significant amount of available energy at the waste energy generating station.  We've also found that, of course, the potential for greenhouse agriculture is well established across the country, and the ability to mate these two technologies together seems very feasible in terms of what we've learned from the study and especially from the marketing study that went along with that."

Methane gas is a byproduct of the decomposition of the organic portion of the solid waste in the Noble Hill Landfill.  It’s collected through a series of wells, according to O’Neill and brought to a flare-blower station where it’s cleaned up and compressed and sent across the a generating station where it’s introduced into engines.  The power is put onto the electric grid and sold throughout the region—about 22,000 homes are powered by it.  The heat generated through that process would heat the greenhouse—in fact, city officials estimate enough heat is generated to heat a four-acre facility.

Steve Meyer, director of environmental services for the city of Springfield, says it’s been their dream from the beginning to make the greenhouse a community asset…

"By having it a community asset, we want to be able to grow a variety of produce that can be consumed here in Southwest Missouri and, specifically, the Springfield Metro area, but by having it modular that way we can start slow, make sure that it works and then start adding other types of vegetables to our product line so that we can get a wide variety of produce."

He says they learned through the feasibility study that more than 95% of the food consumed in this region is imported from somewhere else.  He hopes the greenhouse would help to begin to change that economic structure.

According to O'Neill, in the last century this region was self-supporting in food…

"Because of the change in the economics of agriculture and food production, that's basically disappeared, by and large, from the region, and we're trying to see that's project as potentially a way of beginning to respond to that change."

A marketing study, done by students in Missouri State University’s School of Agriculture, identified places that might use the produce grown in the greenhouse.  Those included grocery stores and small, locally-owned restaurants.  Meyer hopes a certain portion of what’s grown would go to food pantries.  He says it would be a commercial greenhouse—designed and operated as a business to produce a product for sale in the region.  But he says it would have a public purpose—helping to create food independence in the area, generating additional private enterprise here and creating jobs…

"Based on the prototypes of greenhouses that we've seen, there could be a couple of dozen jobs created here in the greenhouse facility itself, but there's also the need for transportation of the produce, marketing the produce and that sort of thing, so we're hopeful that one of the important benefits--community benefits--will be the generation of some good jobs that would be year-round."

Produce might be grown conventionally—with dirt and fertilizer—and also hydroponically using water.  They might also try aquaponics, where fish is added to the water.

Ted O’Neill says they were worried, at first, about whether or not they’d be competing with local farmer’s market…

"Because of the huge amount of produce that's imported into the region, it's really the imports that we're gonna try to displace here, not locally grown.  In fact, we would hope that this greenhouse would be come a teaching, learning environment to perhaps encourage more folks to get involved in greenhouse agriculture that would help build and expand on that base, so we very much want to support the region's agricultural community and help them, well literally, grow their business to help support the region's need for food."

O’Neill says the greenhouse would have to support itself to the greatest extent possible, and the feasibility study confirmed that that potential exists. 

The public was invited recently to look at the feasibility study’s results recently.  After a public review process, O’Neill says Springfield City Council and the city manager will determine whether or not the project moves forward.

If they approve it and funding is secured, he says they might be able to get it up and running by next fall.

For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.