to the United States EPA, emission diversions cause great
Brian R. Hook
County, New York, wants to turn its landfill gas (LFG)
— the natural by-product of the decomposition of
solid waste, consisting of methane and carbon dioxide
— into cash.
The county, located in the central part of the state,
is in the process of implementing an estimated $2 million
LFG project. “It is in the final stages, getting
ready to go out to bid shortly,” said James Zecca,
director of the Madison County Department of Solid Waste
LFG consists of about 50 percent methane, the primary
component of natural gas and about 50 percent carbon dioxide.
Instead of allowing the LFG to escape into the air, it
can be captured, converted and used as an energy source,
like electricity. Plus it helps to prevent the gases from
migrating into the atmosphere and contributing to smog
and climate change.
In Madison County, the LFG would be converted into electricity
and sold to local manufacturers. The county is also planning
to use the excess heat generated from the LFG conversion
process to fully heat or supplement the heating at its
nearby recycling center.
The county has adopted a policy that basically states
that “waste pays for waste,” according to
Zecca. He said that the county’s solid waste program,
consisting of about 50,000 to 60,000 tons per year, pays
for itself through fees, grants and the sale of recyclable
“We are going to be here a good long time,”
Zeccea said, referring to the life left in the county’s
landfill. “We will be generating gas on this same
site anywhere from 100 to 120 years.”
Paul Miller, project coordinator
at the Madison County Planning Department, said that it
has taken persistence to move the county’s LFG project
this far. The county has been working with the New York
Power Authority, a state-owned power organization, and
two other counties in the state --Delaware County and
Sullivan County -- synchronizing the LFG projects.
When the bids go out,
it will be for all three projects, said Miller. "We
can hopefully achieve some savings on the cost of the
project," he said. "I think the coordinated
procurement is an interesting concept and we’re
hoping that brings us some extra value." Miller said
that the county will not know for sure if the project
will support itself until the bids come back.
Madison County is not
alone in its quest. According to the latest figures by
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 360 LFG
projects were in operation at the end of 2003. The EPA
estimated that these projects generate around 8 billion
kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and deliver 230
million cubic feet per day of landfill gas to direct-use
Directly using LFG to
offset the use of another fuel, like natural gas, coal
or fuel oil, is occurring in about a third of the operational
projects, according to the EPA. The direct use of LFG
can be in a boiler, dryer, kiln, greenhouse or other thermal
The LFG is extracted from
landfills using a series of wells and a blower/flare system.
It directs the gas to a central point where it can be
processed and treated. From this point, the gas can be
simply flared or used to generate electricity, replace
fossil fuels in industrial and manufacturing operations,
fuel greenhouse operations, or be upgraded to pipeline
using LFG include auto manufacturing, chemical production,
food processing, pharmaceutical, cement and brick manufacturing,
wastewater treatment, consumer electronics and products,
paper and steel production, and prisons and hospitals,
the EPA reported.
All of these uses are
having an environmental impact. The EPA estimated that
the LFG projects in 2003 prevented the release of emissions
from the equivalent of 14.3 million automobiles. These
emission reductions also had the same benefit as preventing
the use of 152 million barrels of oil or offsetting the
use of 320,000 railcars of coal during the year.
The EPA would like to
see more LFG programs across the country. It set up a
voluntary assistance program called the Landfill Methane
Outreach Program in 1994. The EPA estimated that more
than 600 other landfills present attractive opportunities
for project development.
The success rate reported
by the EPA is a bit misleading, however, according to
Ed Repa, who is director of environmental programs at
the National Solid Wastes Management Association. The
trade association in Washington D.C. represents for-profit
companies that provide solid, hazardous and medical waste
collection, recycling and disposal services.
Repa said that the number
of LFG projects counted by the EPA -- which only totals
in the hundreds -- is out of several thousand landfills
across the country. Plus, he said, most big facilities
already have some kind of gas recovery system in place.
"There are a lot of flares out there, but they are
not turning it into electricity" because it simply
too costly, he said.
To change the cost benefit
equation, the cost of electricity would have to increase
or the government would have to subsidize the conversion
process, according to Repa. "Considering the price
that you can get for electricity that you generate, it
is so small that it doesn’t pay," Repa said.
"They are better off in a lot of cases not to recover
the energy, unfortunately."
But Repa said the market
would probably correct itself. "The economics will
eventually catch up with it and people will recover this
stuff and start generating electricity as it needs to
be generated," he said. "I think that when the
economics become right, people will do it."
The right economic conditions
are already in place for King County in Washington State,
according to Jamey Barker, project manager for the landfill
gas energy project for the King County Solid Waste Division.
The county signed a contract with Energy Developments,
Inc. last year to convert landfill gas to electricity
at its Cedar Hill Regional Landfill in Maple Valley.
EDI will build, own and
operate a LFG plant on site. The project is still in the
design and permitting phase. "Each landfill gas energy
project must be evaluated on a case by case basis,"
Barker said. "The Cedar Hills Regional Landfill project
is economically feasible."
Currently, all of the
garbage generated in King County -- except for Seattle’s
waste -- ends up at Cedar Hills. That is almost a million
tons of garbage a year. Barker said that the plant is
expected to generate enough electricity to power as many
as 16,000 households.
Revenues from the sale
of the landfill gas are expected to be at least $400,000
per year. Plus the solid waste division expects to save
$80,000 annually on energy bills because the new LFG energy
plant will power the landfill’s extensive gas collection
system. Once on-line, the project will be in the top-ten
of the largest landfill gas-to-energy power plants in