The Big Stink: A Landfill or a Gold Mine?
Who here likes landfills? Hands up! What... no one? Don't worry, you're not alone. Almost no one like landfills, and it's not hard to imagine why. Mountains of garbage, sometimes piled several stories high. All manner of pests including vermin and insects. How about the stench of methane and carbon dioxide? Not only repulsive, but contributing to the greenhouse effect to boot.
Oh yeah, and also potentially a source of energy. That's right, that trash-heap isn't just a blight on whatever land it's dumped on—it's a readily available methane deposit. They say one man's trash is another man's treasure... Makes you wonder if they ever imagined it could be taken quite so literally.
The United States isn't doing so well on the energy front. High oil prices raise costs on virtually every industry, while stymied efforts to access resources in North America offer little relief. Hydraulic fracking has come under considerable scrutiny due to issues with groundwater contamination, non-disclosure of the used chemicals, and even increased geological activity. With American solar companies increasingly losing ground to low-cost alternatives from China, even alternative power is feeling a pinch.
But there's a great resource out there... Garbage. Mountains and mountains of garbage.
Okay, that sounds simplistic, and it really is a gross simplification. But there is incredible potential in America's landfills. The United States currently has about 2,300 landfills in operation. That's quite a bit of trash. Did you know that only 520 of those landfills were utilizing the landfill gas as a fuel as of 2009?
That's only roughly one fifth of the potential methane harvest if every landfill collected its gas. That one fifth produced roughly 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 99 billion cubic feet of gas ready for end users.
Granted, not every landfill is considered a viable harvesting candidate. As of 2012, the number of landfills currently collecting gas is 576. Only 510 additional landfills are considered to be viable by EPA standards. However, considering the yield in 2009 from only 520 projects, there's a veritable gold-mine of electricity and fuel. That's also a sizable chunk of methane put to use instead of being allowed to disperse in the atmosphere—the usage of the methane in 2009 prevented the equivalent of 17,800,000 cars worth of annual emissions from rising into the atmosphere.
So what categorizes a landfill as being a candidate? The EPA's qualifications for a candidate dump require that the landfill still be actively accepting waste, or have been closed no longer than five years. The landfill must also have at least one million tons of garbage, and not have a current operational or under construction harvesting project. The final qualification is that there has to be existing interest or planning in setting up a methane reclamation project in the first place. Without these key factors, the EPA won't designate a site as being a candidate. Every state in the Union already has either operational sites or candidate sites, with more potential sites yet to be assessed by the EPA according to data from their database as of January 2012.
Aside from the boon of fuel and power, what other potential benefits could creating a landfill gas collection project bring? Jobs, for starters.
Jobs, and less stink ...
Building and operating the collection and refinement facilities and equipment is going to take people, and if there's anything certain about the economy in 2012, it's that people are looking for work.
You also have reduced methane emissions—remember, methane captures about 23 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year span. This is definitely going to win points with touchy environmental concerns around candidate sites, while still producing plenty of fuel and electricity for Big Energy to take an interest. Everyone wins, and the best part—stench reduction! Less stink, less emissions, more jobs, more money! Who doesn't like the sound of that?
Well, not every environmental group is thrilled with the notion of what could be described as the mother of all recycling projects—The Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council both oppose government subsidies and incentives to start these projects.
The Sierra Club's beef is that the projects won't produce "renewable power." The NRDC thinks incentives should be directed more towards solar, wind and energy-efficiency initiatives. Landfill gas projects are also not perfect for capturing the methane, as 4 to 10% of the methane in each site isn't captured in the first place. Arguments aside, it's hard to deny that getting another source of energy, income, and jobs while at the same time reducing emissions is something we shouldn't be investing in. This is especially true with other sources of fuel such as the Keystone XL being shut-down before it could even get off the ground.
Business-end concerns focus on the cost of starting the project—a landfill gas-to-energy project can easily cost millions to get off the ground. However, not all businesses are hesitant to invest. Waste Management operates 110 landfill gas-to-energy facilities, producing enough gas to offset the use of nearly two million tons of coal per year. The energy produced by Waste Management alone can power 400,000 homes a day.
Other notable companies using landfill gas are Dairyland Power Cooperative, DTE Biomass Energy, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, Emerald People Utilities District, Exelon Power, the FPL Group and the Jacksonville Electric Authority.
Landfill gas isn't exactly the goose that laid the golden egg -- heck, it smells like something else the goose laid. But in the world of alternative energy, beggars sometimes can't be choosers and with all of the benefits of utilizing landfill gas, it's somewhat mind-boggling that this resource isn't being exploited to its utmost.
Maybe word just needs to get out about getting rid of the smell.