There’s nothing typical about it.
Instead of hauling the pits away to be used as biofuel somewhere else, Musco Olive partnered with Combined Solar Technologies of Tracy to build its very own power plant.
The result is a one-of-a-kind system that distills the company’s worst wastewater and, at peak operation, provides enough electricity to power half the company’s facility. The exhaust from the burning olive pits is scrubbed so well, it qualifies as the cleanest-burning biomass plant in the state.
The innovation earned the company the Game Changer of the Year award from the Grow-California business group, an outfit focused on boosting economic expansion.
Ben Hall, director of Musco’s environmental services and programs, said the system isn’t just a source of pride, it’s an elegant solution to an environmental problem.
“For us, it’s really a win-win situation,” he said. “We’re taking two waste streams (water and olive pits) and from those … we wind up with clean water and electricity.”
Salty wastewater has always been an issue for olive manufacturers, and there’s no exception for the Tracy plant that employs more than 200 people and is responsible for 50 percent of the United States’ ripe black olive market.
Musco Olive has been on the receiving end of fines from water regulators because of its waste stream. In 2007, records show, the company was ordered to pay $493,500 in liability fees by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board for violations earlier in the decade.
Hall also said the fields irrigated with company wastewater — fields used to raise crops sold as feed for livestock — were becoming too loaded with salt.
As part of its effort to step up its waste management, Musco used what Hall described as best-of-industry practices to improve, even sowing those fields with a grass that draws salt from the soil as it grows.
But Musco took a step into untested waters when Combined Solar Technologies built the unique “SteamBoy” system, which includes a boiler, a condenser and a steam engine that looks straight out of the Industrial Revolution.
“The beauty of the steam engine is it’s so durable,” said Hall, who explained that more modern equipment, such as turbines, would be easily fouled by the wastewater that’s being distilled.
The brain behind Musco’s machine is Combined Solar’s Frank Schubert, who worked on closed water systems for NASA’s man-to-Mars effort and spent time playing music with rock band Devo.
“I’ve always built things,” he said while offering a tour of the SteamBoy, explaining how the system came together.
The man who made Schubert’s creation a reality is Scott Mattson, the manager who found solutions to engineering problems as the project was constructed.
“It’s built from the ground up, right here on this property,” Mattson said.
The system isn’t running at full capacity yet. But when it does, Hall expects to find other ways to harness its power.
“There’s still a tremendous amount of untapped potential,” he said.
That potential caught the eye of the city of Tracy, which faces its own wastewater-quality troubles.
The city discharges treated water into Old River, part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta north of town. According to the Tracy Public Works Department’s Steve Bayley, the city needs to reduce the amount of salt in that water or face significant fines — just like Musco Olive.
So the city is working with Combined Solar to see if SteamBoy could work on a larger scale.
“What we’re working on now is the feasibility of scaling it up,” Bayley said. “(Musco Olive treats about) 100,000 gallons a day. We need to do about 1 million gallons a day.”
“I’m really intrigued by that,” Bayley added, though he cautioned that it likely wouldn’t be a complete solution to the city’s salt discharge problem.
Bayley hopes to hear from experts soon whether the born-at-Musco system will meet air and cost-efficiency standards, so the city can decide whether it makes sense to build SteamBoy’s bigger brother.
In the meantime, the city has taken other steps to reduce its salt output, including reducing its use of well water.
Between November and April this year, Bayley said, the city used no water from the Delta-Mendota Canal, relying on cleaner water from the Stanislaus River. And only 3 percent of the city’s annual water supply was sourced from wells, which means the city’s historically hard water — and its eventual wastewater output — have become less mineral-laden.
“We’ve been working diligently at it,” he said.
Just like at Musco Olive, where Hall said the goal is to be a good neighbor to Tracy, as well as a strong business.
“We recognized that there’s an issue we needed to address for the long-term benefit of the company and the community,” he said.