Turning waste into energy discussed at Fresno expo

FRESNO -- When Jack Oslan looks at the future, he sees garlic skins as energy sources and remnants of landfills providing construction materials and soil conditioners.

"Trash is being collected everywhere, and we reuse much of it," he said. "But some becomes residual in landfills. That is what we're interested in."

Oslan operates TerGeo Ventures Inc., which is based in the Bay Area. His company converts agricultural, municipal, coal and toxic waste into electricity, biofuel and fuel cells.

Oslan was in Fresno on Friday to participate in a panel discussion on the future of energy in the Central Valley. The panel was part of the Central California Hispanic Business Chamber of Commerce annual business expo. The event was expected to draw about 1,000 people.

Oslan said the nation's landfills are closing at the rate of one a day, and the remaining 3,000 are reaching capacity. "Pretty soon, we will run out of places to put our trash," he said.

His company, he said, can convert much of the garbage into synthetic gas that is then sold as energy. What's left becomes inert ash and sold as soil conditioner or used in construction, he said.

TerGeo is hooking up with a farmer to process garlic skins into energy.

"It will take the overflow, and instead of paying to haul it away, we can use it to create power to run back into the farming operation," he said.

Such partnerships will become more likely and more cost-effective as technology advances, experts say. The University of California at Merced plans to be a leader in developing renewable energy technology.

"Renewable energy has to be profitable," said Ron Durbin, director of development at UC Merced's School of Engineering.

UC Merced as energy model

The university, which will have 3,200 students this school year, is positioning itself to be a leader in environmental studies and research.

It wants to be a model for sustainability, producing as much energy as it uses. The goals are zero landfill waste, zero energy consumption and zero greenhouse emissions by 2020.

It has developed a program that studies hydrology and ecology in the Sierra Nevada, and it is pushing ahead on the Merced Energy Research Institute, which faculty members created to pursue research and grants.

The university is building a 7-acre solar farm. "We have scientists who wake up every day with the mission of making solar more affordable," Durbin said.

University officials are considering a School of Sustainable Design, which would meld architecture, urban and regional planning and environmental sciences to accommodate population growth.

John Hernandez, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the business expo focused on energy because it is a "big- picture issue."