Entrepreneurs Convert Landfill Gas
into an Alternative Source of Energy

Leslie Becker

Most of the current methods of producing energy in North America poison the air and water, increase global warming, pose the risk of meltdown disasters, or require destruction of natural ecological systems. The decomposing waste in landfills creates methane gas, which in turn contributes to global warming as well as posing other environmental and human health hazards. Alternative energy entrepreneurs searching for alternative sources of energy examined the problem of the production of methane gas at landfills. The landfill gas collection system was developed, and energy conversion stations (were) designed to convert the landfill gas into either steam, electricity, or pipeline quality gas. These intrepreneurs succeeded in transforming the environmental problem of landfill gas into an alternative source of energy which has negligible negative impact in its production or collection process. Today there are landfill gas-to-energy projects at approximately 100 sites around the United States.

Rocky Mountain Institute energy consultant Amory Lovins predicts that “energy in the 1990's could be a very big business for entrepreneurs”....

The EPA reports that there are thirty-eight thousand municipal solid waste landfills in the US. Many of those sites are unmapped and remote. However, six thousand landfills are still open and accepting waste. All of them contain decomposing organic garbage which creates a gas which is roughly fifty percent methane, fifty percent carbon dioxide, and one percent volatile organic compounds....

Engineers use probes to detect the migration of gas around a landfill, and to measure the pressure of the gas and the concentration of methane. Gas recovery wells are installed around the perimeter of the landfill, and in a grid pattern across the landfill. A network of pipes is built to interconnect the wells and the energy recovery equipment....

One of the earliest landfill gas-to-electricity projects began in 1982 in Brattleboro, Vermont. That project generates 320 kw of electricity, presently providing enough energy for 1500 households. The 320 kw capacity will be expanded to 800 kw, and eventually up to 1 megawatt. By 1996, when the landfill is scheduled to close, its energy production level will satisfy the electricity demands of 5000 households. The production rate will probably begin to decline around 1998. The average operating life of a gas-to-energy project is about twelve years....

The prices that the utility companies are offering to independent power producers are often too low to support the operation of smaller landfill gas-to-energy projects. The federal program of tax incentives developed during the Carter administration previously encouraged development of alternative energy sources; however during the Reagan-Bush administrations, most tax incentives have been withdrawn, and the utilities are paying lower prices for energy from alternative sources.

The minimum size of a project is suggested to be 75,000 tons of waste in place, or a landfill on 25 acres of land or more. Landfills which have been closed, or which are designated for closure, are best (since) the rubbish placement operations and the gas recovery project can have difficulty working in the same space. Developers should plan to spend between twenty to fifty thousand dollars on initial drilling and use of probes in order to determine the migration patterns of the gas, as well as collecting other valuable data. Investors should plan to wait about four years before seeing a return on their investment. The cost of a small project would be about $500,000 (while) an average size project would cost $2 million to $3 million.

This is a rare opportunity where private investment can create a new source of energy while preventing the escape of gases which contribute to global warming and release toxic air emissions. Private capital may be used to directly solve an environmental problem, however, some public involvement is needed to make these projects economically feasible

Leslie Becker
Excerpted from Catalyst, Vol. vii, no.4. (Fall 1990). Subscriptions are $25/year from Catalyst, Box 1308, Montpelier, Vermont 05601 U.S.A.



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