(Sept. 13) Gills Onions, Oxnard, Calif., plans to reduce waste in its fresh-cut processing plant and cut energy costs at the same time.

“As the business grows, we’re going to have a larger waste problem,” said co-owner Steven Gill. “We want to eliminate it, become more efficient, and we want to get everything we can out of the onions.”

That’s why Gills plans to install two 250-kilowatt power plants from Danbury, Conn.-based FuelCell Energy Inc., next year. The environmentally friendly fuel cells will be powered by onion waste and are expected to provide up to 40% of the power used in the company’s 40,000-square-foot processing plant, Gill said.

Gills, which processes red and yellow onions year-round, handles more than 100 truckloads of onions per week, resulting in 800,000 pounds of waste each week. The company removes the juice from the unused portion of its onions and disks the remaining waste into fallow fields.

That disposal method, however, costs money. Gill said skins and pulp instead would be used for cattle feed in the future. He also said the company would save about $400,000 a year in labor, trucking and fuel costs related to disposal of the waste.

JUICE FROM JUICE

The onion juice, which also has been discarded as waste, will be the key element in the new power plants, which could be operational as soon as next summer.

Gill said the juice will be fed into an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria to break down sugar in the juice and converts it to methane gas. The gas then goes to the fuel cell where it is converted to electricity without combustion or the pollutants caused by burning fuel.

The fuel cells meet the standards of the California Air Resources Board, Gill said. The company will be eligible for up to $2.25 million in incentive funding from Southern Gas Edison as well as federal tax credits, he said.

Gill said he expected the project to pay for itself within seven years. He said the company was in the process of acquiring the appropriate building permits and hoped to begin construction in the spring.