A Grand Investment logoGrand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability nationwide. Government, business and nonprofit partners have come together to set – and exceed – aggressive sustainability goals, earning the community top sustainability honors for more than a decade. Last month, we talked about ways residents and visitors could get involved in local sustainability efforts year-round. This month, we’re taking a closer look at some innovative ways the City and local business are partnering to ensure water quality and energy efficiency.

Protecting the river and boosting the economy

Grand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability. In 1991, the City initiated what would ultimately be a $400 million investment in a state-of-the-art wastewater collection system. It keeps 100 percent of sanitary sewer water pollutants from entering the city’s namesake Grand River unless extreme weather conditions occur like flooding or 100-year rain events.

The project was completed in 2015 – four years ahead of schedule. It eliminated 59 sewer overflow and discharge sites into the river by separating and replacing storm and sanitary sewers and installing 119 miles of new pipelines.

At the same time, the City made other green infrastructure improvements. These included the installation of rain gardens, porous pavement and hydrodynamic separators to remove sediments. Improvements are continuing citywide, and they have decreased the amount of stormwater diverted to storm sewers, allowing rainwater to replenish groundwater.  

Beyond the environmental impact, these green infrastructure improvements have resulted in $232 million to $418 million in estimated average annual net economic benefit.

Raingarden near the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Photo Credit: City of Grand Rapids


The quadruple bottom line

Since completing the combined sewer overflow project, the City adopted a Quadruple Bottom Line approach to sustainability, adding Governmental Accountability to the trio of Environmental Quality, Social Responsibility and Economic Prosperity performance measures in 2016.  

Grand Rapids is one of 12 U.S. cities participating in a project to develop a policy roadmap toward a zero net carbon building sector by 2050. Using its sustainability plan as a guide, the City aims to:

  • Reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 2009 levels by 2021
  • Double water reuse and recovery by June 30, 2021
  • Increase energy use from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biogas and geothermal from 30 percent to 100 percent by June 30, 2025

Waste to energy: An innovative public-private partnership

One tool being developed to reach the 100 percent renewables goal is a new $57 million biodigester at the Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF), operated by the City of Grand Rapids.

It all started when Grand Rapids’ largest craft brewer – Founders Brewing Co. – wanted a better way to dispose of its biowaste and the City needed a way to handle the growing influx of commercial wastewater from companies such as Founders.

The solution? A local, dedicated wastewater pipeline and biodigester that will turn Founders’ and other companies’ concentrated biowaste into renewable energy and fertilizer. Here’s how it works.

The City recently completed construction of a 2-mile-long, 10-inch wastewater pipeline designed to carry tens of thousands of gallons of water and highly concentrated biowaste directly to the WRRF. 

Founders is the first area business to connect, but the City expects to add SET Environmental to the new pipeline later this year. Currently, the estimated wastewater volume from Founders and SET Environmental ranges from 200,000 to 300,000 gallons per day.

Because the wastewater flows through the dedicated line, the City is able to hold it in a special tank until the middle of the night or weekend when daily loadings from other customers are low and the WRRF has capacity to send the higher strength wastewater through the WRRF.

Solar panels in Grand Rapids.

Photo Credit: City of Grand Rapids


This marks completion of phase one of the project and allows the City to handle the increasing load on the system that comes as companies such as Founders grow. Without it, the current wastewater treatment system would be at capacity within the next few years due to projected growth in brewing, food processing and other area production.

Phase two is under way and includes construction of an industrial biodigester capable of turning commercial biowaste, including the biowaste from brewing and food processing, into renewable energy.  The biogas will be cleaned converting it to renewable natural gas and sold to DTE Energy.  Beginning in 2022 a portion of the renewable natural gas produced by the City’s biodigester will provide roughly 60 percent of the energy needed to power the WRRF and the generators will produce the heat required for biodigestion.

Phase two is expected to be done in 2019. When completed, the biodigester will be similar to the Michigan State University anaerobic digester described in this video. (Note: The Grand Rapids digester will not use agricultural manure.)

As business continues to flourish in Grand Rapids, the City’s commitment to sustainability grows along with it. Officials with its Environmental Services Department expect to add other customers to reduce the load on the WRRF over the next several years.

More innovation in the pipeline

In addition to the renewable energy captured by the biodigestion process, the City will recover phosphorus from digested sewage sludge. This has both economic and environmental benefits.

Plants need phosphorus to grow, so it’s an important component in fertilizer. The City will sell the phosphorus to the fertilizer industry, recapturing some of its investment in the biodigestion program.

But beyond that, reclaiming phosphorus from biowaste keeps the phosphate out of the watershed and reduces the threat of toxic algae blooms. It’s also a far more sustainable method of producing phosphorus than mining.

So, Grand Rapids continues on its sustainable journey, adding to the reasons the City recently received top honors from the Michigan Green Communities Network for its wide range of environmental sustainability projects. 

A Grand Investment is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings. 

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