Many Americans are increasingly turning to alternative forms of energy, and one exciting source that has seen recent resurgence in use is landfill gas. This rise in the use of landfill gas can be attributed to a variety of factors. Higher energy prices make landfill gas cost-competitive, especially compared to other sources of renewable energy. Second, utilities are looking for new sources of renewable energy to meet renewable portfolio standards, and landfill gas is especially valuable to them because it provides base load power. There's also a real demand from consumers for greener energy and many of them are taking part in voluntary programs and are willing to pay more for power derived from renewable sources.
What exactly is landfill gas? Landfill gas is produced when microorganisms break down organic material in the landfill, and is comprised of approximately 50-60 percent methane and 40-50 percent carbon dioxide. At most landfills in the United States, these greenhouse gases are simply burned off, or "flared." (As pictured.)However, Waste Management (WM) has over 100 sites that have landfill gas to energy (LFGTE) facilities — and we plan to build another 60 plants by 2012 - that collect methane and use it to fuel onsite engines or turbines, generating electricity to power surrounding homes and neighborhoods. By building LFGTE facilities, WM further reduces greenhouse gases by offsetting the use of fossil fuel at the utility power plants.
According to EPA data, there are currently 425 landfills with LFGTE projects in the U.S. that power more than 1 million homes. They estimate that there are about 570 landfills that have the potential to develop LFGTE projects in the future, more than doubling the current amount of energy produced from 1,180 megawatts to more than 2,500 megawatts. Hence, there is a large supply of renewable energy across the country, literally at our doorstep.
For the landfills that Waste Management operates, we expect viable gas streams to run for up to 20 years. With evolving technology and increasing extraction efficiencies, we may be able to extend the lives of our facilities beyond that. The EPA requires landfill operators to collect the methane produced on site, so where it is not being used for energy production it is, and will be, flared to prevent the release of greenhouse gas. WM is currently exploring alternative ways of using landfill gas at sites where it is not practical or the best use to install an LFGTE plant, including a new project to convert landfill gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Waste Management along with Linde, a leading global gases and engineering company, are building a landfill gas to LNG facility at WM's Altamont Landfill near Livermore, Calif., which will convert landfill gas into a clean vehicle fuel. This will be the largest plant of its kind in the world and we hope to break new ground by producing commercial quantities. The facility will purify and liquefy the landfill gas Waste Management collects from the natural decomposition of organic waste in the landfill. When the facility begins operating in 2009 it is expected to produce up to 13,000 gallons a day of LNG and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30,000 tons per year. The project offers a unique opportunity to "close the loop" by fueling hundreds of collection trucks with clean fuel produced from garbage.
This project, which has the support of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the California Air Resources Board, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District has the potential to allow us to tap into a valuable source of clean energy while greatly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Using the methane produced in our facilities for a variety of purposes is a central part of WM's efforts to enhance the environmental contribution of our landfills.
Image credit::Parnell Biogas Landfill Gas Flaring Systems