This Project Would Turn Las Vegas Food Waste Into Power

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Nov. 20 2018, Updated 2:58 p.m. ET

It takes a lot of energy to power the slot machines, nightclubs, and bright neon lights of the Las Vegas strip. These high electricity demands have made it difficult for the city to achieve 100 percent renewable power, and for casinos to leave the grid. But as resorts experiment with LED lighting and solar arrays, Rosalie Bingham has a more ambitious idea. What if they sourced their power from the leftover food at their buffets?

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Bingham believes Las Vegas could derive clean power from an anaerobic digester, essentially a large tank that breaks down organic waste into natural gas. The systems are frequently found outside farms in Germany, but now, Bingham wants to bring them to Vegas through her foundation Regener8tive. Green Matters asked her about the fundraising campaign in the interview below, which spans anaerobic digestion, Las Vegas landfills, and clean power premiums.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity, flow, and length.

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GREEN MATTERS: How did you arrive at the anaerobic digester concept?

ROSALIE BINGHAM: I was approached by a company to get involved because they knew that I have connections and live both in the north and the south, in Las Vegas and in Reno. They presented some information about organic waste and how it could be used to power the lights and the casinos. And I thought, what a great solution. You take a serious problem — [Vegas] has [one of] the largest landfills in the nation — and we solve that problem by taking this organic waste which will lengthen that landfill by 40 years and clean up our air in the valley. It’ll also feed 44 million tourists, which is what creates the problem. But if we utilize that problem and turn it into a solution, then it's a good bet basically.

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GM: How does it work?

RB: You take food from the casinos and you haul it into an anaerobic digester, which is kind of like a concrete stomach, right? Then you put microbes and some heat and a fan into it… then the food decomposes and the gas is trapped in like a bubble on the top of the tank. And then they scrub it, clean it, and then they put it into the grid. It can either be compressed natural gas or they can use a generator and convert it into electricity using that gas. 

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 The technical part of it is much more detailed than what I can tell you, but the anaerobic digester companies know exactly what to do and it's been done for many, many years. [There are] a lot, thousands of them in Europe.

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GM: And the machine can generate water as well?

RB: That's correct. So what comes out of the anaerobic digester is gas, and then a water. It’s very sludgy, we call it sludge water. And we can use that to grow new food [in greenhouses]. And then we sell that back to the casinos or to the locals and the food eventually ends up — the discarded part — ends up in the anaerobic digester again, creating more power, more food, and more water. I mean that's the reason why this is so important. We can create a self-reliant community. So if something was to happen, we at least would be able to power and have food for our locals if there was a disaster.

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GM: You acknowledge the operating costs, at least in the beginning, are going to be a little bit higher than the price of dirty power sources. When do you expect the Green Machine costs to level off?

RB: Well, just like solar or wind, it takes a year or two, maybe five depending on how fast and how many come online because as there becomes more of a demand, that cost goes down. But because it's not dependent on weather, the costs will go down greatly because the weather has some problems that, you know, we can't control. But as long as people eat and animals poop — because we use manure in this as well — this machine will continue to create power which isn't limited by the weather. So I do believe that the power should be within 18 months to two years, where the premium is now in line with the typical dirty power or brown power.

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GM: You proposed casinos as a possible donor to offset that premium. Have you spoken to any casinos that are receptive?

RB: Well they are and I have spoken to several of them and they are willing to do that. But they want it to make economic sense and they don't want [the cost] to be so high. That's why we're doing this as a nonprofit. We’re planning to use the money that we get from the nonprofit to offset the premium if needed.

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The premium would probably be, as long as it's within reasonable standards of an increase, a few cents more. They have no problem paying a couple cents more. But if it's going to be three times or four times the premium, then they can't afford to do that for very much power. They can do that for a small, limited amount of power. But wouldn't it be great if eventually all of our power is clean power, whether it's from wind or solar or natural gas from the anaerobic digester? Then we don't need brown power anymore. 

That's why we're doing this fundraiser and this nonprofit to show that there's support behind us and that we can get people to donate or invest. Once the greenhouses are making a profit, I will take 25 percent of that greenhouse money and it will go towards offsetting that premium until it sustains itself. That's why I say it will be a year and a half, because at a year and a half, we should have enough food grown in those warehouses that we can pay that premium and so no one will have to pay that premium anymore.

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GM: Since you are right now trying to raise that money, why should the Vegas community be invested in this concept?

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RB: Cleaner air. That's one of the biggest reasons, is to have cleaner air. Two is that if there was a problem that this would be food available, grown on these warehouses, that could sustain our locals in a time of crisis. And three is if we collaborate together and we take this one problem which is so easy to fix, I think it would be healing for the community in general. It crosses party lines, it crosses all cultures, all genders, all religious practices, and it makes everybody work together for the common good. Not just for a select few. 

We start with this [solution] and we show that this one works, then the next one and the next one, and now we've restored hope. We've continued to be accountable as a nonprofit. None of the money that we raise as a nonprofit will go towards the administration. None of it. It will all go towards the hard costs of the generators and the premium. 

I funded this project and pretty much have come out of retirement to do this because I think it's really important. I have kids now and I eventually would like grandkids and I just don't want anyone to ever say, "Why didn't you try Mom?" You know, you just had so many people rooting for you and it was such a viable concept. Why didn't you just push it forward? And I've been pushing this freight train by myself and I need help. I can't do it on my own. And it wouldn't serve a purpose to do it on my own because it does need to be a collaborative effort with everybody involved to create a better community. Because we all benefit.

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