If you’ve followed the Community Foundation for any period of time, you know that we have about 300 charitable funds that support nearly as many causes. One of those funds, the Metropolitan Edison Company Sustainable Energy Fund, was created in 2000 as part of electricity deregulation in Pennsylvania. It is one of five such funds across the state that support renewable and sustainable energy education and projects. 

Last month, the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund hosted the Mid-Atlantic Biomass Heat & Power Conference in Gettysburg. The gathering drew representatives from business, education, government and philanthropy to learn about biomass energy sources that are renewable and sustainable. 

It was my second time at the conference. One of the highlights is an optional field tour to see biomass projects in action. At the last conference I opted for the woody biomass field tour. We stopped at a state forest, where forest rangers and tree experts told us – and showed  us – about selective cutting of trees. State forests and parks use the process as a forest management tool. When appropriate, they sell the wood for firewood and to manufacturers of wood pellets. We also visited a wood pellet manufacturer to see how scrap wood and sawdust get compressed into pellets. We rounded out the tour with a visit to a pellet stove manufacturer, where we learned about the environmental impact of cleaner burning pellet stovesdigester

This year, I opted for the Biogas Tour.  We started at Slate Ridge Farm, a family dairy farm near Chambersburg. At 150 cows, Slate Ridge is generally considered too small of an operation to install and maintain a digester system to turn manure into energy (manure pit in photo at right).  

As part of a grant-funded pilot project several years ago, the family agreed to have a digester put on their farm. There were many ups and downs with the project, but today it’s functioning and creating enough methane to put on the grid (generator in photo below).


The next stop was the Blue Ridge Landfill, where we toured a generation plant that is using the methane from the landfill to supply power to a nearby town. We rounded out the tour with lunch at the Adams County Winery.

When it comes to digesters for animal waste, the benefits are great: the manure is collected and put into a pit, where it deteriorates and produces methane, which is captured and used to power generators that either put power back on the grid or divert it for farm uses. What remains of the manure after this process is relatively clean and far less pungent for the neighborhood than spreading manure on fields. Nevertheless, of the four digesters that were planned on smaller farms during the pilot project, only Slate Ridge is operational. As it turns out, each small digester installation is engineered as a new project, with a new set of problems, and a new trail to blaze.

landfill generator

On the other hand, the capture of landfill gas seems to be a more standardized process. The generating site we visited (in photos at left and right) looked remarkably

cat enginelike the generating site our Met Ed Fund supported at the Pioneer Crossing Landfill in Birdsboro. There were clear expectations for set-up, operation, maintenance and lifespan.  This consistency ultimately leads to better safety oversight and a more predictable operation.

Thank you to PA Biomass for another great learning experience. To learn more about biomass in Pennsylvania check out the PA Biomass Association website.  

Heidi Williamson
Vice President for Grantmaking and Communication
Berks County Community Foundation