April 2005

Transforming methane gas from landfills into cash
From methane gas to cash

According to the United States EPA, emission diversions cause great environmental impact

By Brian R. Hook E-mail the author

Madison 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 and Sanitation.

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 material.

“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 applications.

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 applications.

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 quality gas.

Industries 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 the U.S.

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