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Food-to-Energy Plant To Partially Power Stop & Shop Distribution Center

Come October 1st, new state regulations will change how old and unwanted commercial food is disposed of in Massachusetts. Under the new regulations, any entity that discards a ton or more of food per week must donate or re-purpose the useable food. For spoiled food, one option is to convert it into clean energy. And that’s what Stop & Shop is doing. A Stop & Shop Distribution Center in Freetown is gearing up to install its own on-site system that uses spoiled food from its retail stores to generate electricity.

At 1.1 million square feet, the Stop & Shop warehouse and distribution center in Freetown has the feel of an airline hangar. Inside the cavernous facility, automated cranes zoom along rows of 20 to 30 foot high shelves, lifting off pallets of packaged food and transferring them onto conveyor belts. From there, the pallets are sent out to 213 Stop & Shop retail stores in New England. Powering such a massive operation requires 17 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year. By next Spring, roughly 40 percent of those power needs will be handled by a new on-site facility, according to Stop & Shop consultant Greg O’Brien.

“It’ll be enclosed in 12,000 square feet, and it’s a clean-energy processing operation for unsold or outdated food materials that cannot be sold to customers or donated to food pantries,” O’Brien said.

The new facility is designed to handle 95 tons of spoiled food per day. The food undergoes a process called anaerobic digestion.

“The organic material is placed in an oxygen-free, self-contained tank filled with microbes that break the food down, producing a bio-gas which is then used to produce electricity,” O’Brien said.

Roger Beliveau is Manager of Distribution Services at the Stop & Shop facility. He said this food-to-energy technology was developed by Boston-based Feed Resource Recovery, Inc., which proposed the facility last year. Stop & Shop decided it fit with their mission to find new green-energy alternatives.

“It’s the first one of its kind on the East Coast,” said Beliveau. “And there’s only one other in place right now. It’s out in California.

In addition to producing energy, there’s a huge labor-saving benefit to the FEED process.

“It’ll handle the packaging, so we don’t have to separate everything out,” said Beliveau. “Currently, if you wanna do something like that, you have to separate the food from the packaging. This particular machine is gonna take all of that, separate it out in the machine. So the packaging’s put to one side, and the food goes into the digester and actually produces the gas.”

The proposed new facility received unanimous support from the Freetown Planning Board and Conservation Commission, and it’s expected to create 8 to 10 new full-time positions. Current plans call for the facility to be located in the northwest corner of the Stop & Shop property, about 200 yards from the main building.

Construction hasn’t started yet, so the physical site of the new facility is still a parking lot. It’s adjacent to the salvage building, where trucks are emptied and washed before going back out to make deliveries at retail stores. But soon, instead of returning empty, they’ll be bringing back spoiled food in sealed plastic containers.

“It’s a perfect fit. Bring the product off of here. The building would be at the end of this building right here. We’ll just run the product right over to the FEED facility, and they’ll recycle the food that way,” Beliveau said.

Last year, Stop & Shop donated $12 million to local food banks and food pantries. Future donations will be unaffected by the new food-to-energy plant, because the new plant will only process spoiled food. Stop & Shop’s long-term energy goal is to divert 90% of its waste going to landfills and incineration by the year 2020.