Although the number of U.S. landfills has steadily declined since 1990, the size of landfills has increased. In fact, Americans generated 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2010 alone. It’s thus no surprise that MSW landfills are our third-largest, human-generated source of methane emissions. But this is more an opportunity than it is a problem.
Many landfills are becoming resource recovery facilities–places where waste or byproducts are reclaimed and converted into energy. Captured by wells installed throughout a landfill, naturally-occurring methane emissions (or landfill gas–LFG) can be converted into multiple energy sources, including electricity, a replacement for fossil fuels in industrial operations, or upgraded to pipeline-quality gas. Methane’s heat can also be used directly. Of the approximately 2,400 operating or recently closed MSW landfills in the U.S., 535 (around 22 percent) currently have resource recovery projects.
To learn more about these projects and the benefits they deliver, I spoke to several industry experts–including David Specca, Assistant Director for Bioenergy and Controlled Environment Agriculture at the Rutgers University EcoComplex, and Barry Edwards, Director of Engineering and Utilities at Catawba County–and looked at three examples of successful projects.
The Benefits of LFG Recovery Projects
These projects are economically symbiotic for landfill operators that sell this abundant and freely-produced energy source, and public and private facilities that use this low-cost energy. In addition, the EPA cites several benefits for the environment and communities, including the direct reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, indirect reduction of pollution by offsetting the use of nonrenewable resources, and a catalyst to the local economy by revenue generated from the sale of captured methane.
As Edwards points out, “This type of project benefits industry through savings in manufacturing–and benefits citizens through reduced environmental pollution.”
Specca elaborates, “They are a catalyst for innovation and new job creation. The idea of inexpensive–or even free–feedstock that can be converted into a saleable product sparks entrepreneurial interest.”
Three Successful LFG Recovery Projects
1. Catawba County, North Carolina’s EcoComplex: Catawba County’s EcoComplex has developed a sophisticated multi-purpose facility whose symbiotic relationships are fascinating. The 800-acre site, scattered with wells collecting methane from decomposing waste, supplies enough energy to generate three megawatts of electricity–enough to supply 1,500 residences. Remaining heat energy is then piped to Appalachian State University’s biodiesel facility. The University’s ultimate goal is to create a closed-loop biodiesel processing facility that both creates its own energy and recycles its own waste.
Another symbiotic relationship at Catawba County's EcoComplex: a pallet company who uses a neighboring lumberyard's scraps to produce pallets. Photo courtesy of Catawba County.
Edwards says, “Our industrial park is employing industrial ecology symbiosis by combining waste management, energy production, and university research. The EcoComplex incorporates shared, mutually beneficial relationships between industry byproducts and required manufacturing resources.”
2. Rutgers University EcoComplex: Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown, New Jersey has used energy captured in its 100-acre landfill to power and heat several facilities. One of these is a one-acre greenhouse that allows local growers to grow their crops year round and produce more than 10,000 plants monthly.
Another project, partnering Rutgers and Acrion Technology, used LFG cleanup technology to produce compressed natural gas and liquid natural gas for truck fuel. The six-month project supplied enough fuel for two trash trucks visiting the landfill daily–and was so successful, the technology has since been acquired by Mack Truck/Volvo. Specca describes endless facility opportunities,
“Because LFG generally converts 25-30 percent of energy in the gas to electricity, we’re promoting technologies that can utilize heat for other purposes such as heating a greenhouse or warehouse–this can essentially transform a resource recovery center into a renewable energy center for a cluster of industries that can take advantage of the heat and electricity.”
3. BMW Manufacturing Co. in South Carolina: Leading a movement in South Carolina to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S.’s only BMW manufacturing facility has sourced almost two-thirds of its energy from methane sourced from Palmetto Landfill and routed to BMW’s facility by a 9.5-mile pipeline. In 2007, the Spartanburg plant was named “top plant” by Plant Engineering Magazine, and achieved “Energy Partner of the Year” by the EPA for its Landfill Methane Outreach Program.
BMW's methane pipeline at their Spartanburg manufacturing facility. Photo courtesy of BMW.
Through BMW’s ongoing commitment to sustainability and energy capturing, they’ve also become the world’s first green automotive paint shop–powered by methane gas from the landfill. It’s estimated that since BMW began these endeavors, carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by approximately 216,000 tons. A University of South Carolina Moore School of Business report compares this energy savings to the amount of emissions produced by a standard automobile traveling 105 million miles.
The Future of Resource Recovery Facilities
Experts who are experienced in resource recovery facilities think the trend will gain momentum as entities realize the value in their partnerships. Edwards says, “Applied industrial ecology to waste management will become the predominant waste management method–so you’ll see many similar projects in the immediate future. In fact, we average two tours per week at our complex–that’s the current level of interest shown by others.”
Because of the abundance of mutual benefits, Specca believes these types of synergies will continue to grow. He does, however, warn there can be hefty investments. “The investments can be very high for a resource recovery facility, and there’s no guarantee a synergistic partner will come–or, if they do, how long they’ll remain in business.”
However, Specca also emphasizes the growth opportunity within symbiotic facility relationships. “We believe the opportunities for these relationships is wide open–from waste sorting, processing, and gas cleanup-to alternative energy technology development, sustainable product development, and renewable energy production–there is a lot to be invented yet.”
The federal government is doing its part to drive adoption of these projects, too. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), a voluntary program encouraging landfill operators to capture methane emissions and distribute it to partnering communities, utility providers or other facilities.
Are you a facility manager either within a landfill sector or an energy-benefitting entity? Are you considering undertaking LMOP initiatives? Consider this EPA Energy Benefits Calculator to estimate direct, avoided and total greenhouse gas reductions. If you have experience in these efforts, please share them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thumbnail courtesy of Catawba County.