Unwasted energy

Ed Kelly, left, principal, and Steve Van Stee, right, director of operations, both of Shenandoah Energy Services, stretch out this temperature probe that is a component of this heat generating compost pile they are constructing outside an aquaponics greenhouse in Strasburg. The temperature probe will be used to start the boiler inside the greenhouse flowing water and antifreeze when the compost pile, which includes garden waste and manure from the farm, reaches the optimum temperature. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG — Fourth-generation farmer Kelsie Diehl is bringing a new-age approach to organic farming.

The owner of Del Ray Farm Aquaponics in Strasburg, Diehl, 25, is adding a waste-to-energy system to power her greenhouse that could be the first of its kind.

Outside the greenhouse, a compost bin covered in foil-backed foam insulation will transfer the heat generated from the compost pile — which could reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit — to heat the water in the greenhouse fish tanks.

Waste from the catfish in the tanks will fertilize a pair of plant beds filled with vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs.

“And the plants will actually put oxygen back into the water and kind of clean it for the fish,” Diehl said, “so it’s really kind of a cool cycle the way everything works.”

A boiler, powered by a row of external solar panels, would kick on when there’s not enough heat produced by the compost pile. And in the summer months, a system of geothermal lines can be used to cool the catfish tanks.

Edinburg-based Shenandoah Energy Services is the firm completing the project, including the design and construction.

Ed Kelly, principal of Shenandoah Energy, said this is the first aquaponics system using a waste-to-energy process he’s ever heard of.

“I’ve done a lot of research,” he said. “I haven’t seen this at all.”

Stephen Van Stee, director of operations at the Edinburg firm, agreed.

“This is proven technology,” he said. “There are many folks out there using compost to heat with, but this is the first that we know of that’s being done to do what we’re doing.”

He said the project, which began in September, could be finished by Thanksgiving.

Diehl graduated from Virginia Tech in 2011 with a degree in animal and poultry sciences. She said she had to teach herself how to create the aquaponics ecosystem.

“It was all kind of studying on my own and figuring it out as I went along,” she said.

Kelly recalled being approached by her at their booth at Strasburg’s Mayfest this spring.

“We were highly encouraged by her ambition,” he said, “and when we came out and saw what she was doing, we said we gotta help her.”

A REAP grant — Rural Energy for America Program — offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will pay for 25 percent of the project’s total expenses.

Kelly said the cost of operating an aquaponics greenhouse using traditional electricity could easily reach $6,000 a year. He said the new system should cut that cost in half.

Diehl’s great-great grandfather, B.F. Richard, was the first to farm on their land back when it was about 100 acres larger. Every generation since then, except her parents, has taken its turn cultivating it.

“I think they would be proud that I’m trying to not let it get developed,” she said. “Because we’re right in town, it makes it hard to do.”

Diehl said she hopes to sell her vegetables to local restaurants such as Cristina’s Cafe, which embraces the farm-to-table movement for its dishes.

She said she’s been talking to Signal Knob agriscience teacher Jaclyn Roller Ryan about possibly giving tours to the middle school students of the greenhouse.

Because of the revolutionary nature of the system, Kelly said they still need to do some experimenting and testing, charting the temperatures and data.

He said he plans to send articles on his findings to Home Power, a renewable energy magazine, and West Virginia University.

“Strasburg is starting to become a hub, with Pot Town Organics and this,” he said, “and I think they’re moving in the right direction.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com