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From Garbage to Gas

Landfills and other sources of organic waste could become a massive pipeline for cleaner fuel.

Anne Kim | Republic 3.0

Anne Kim

What was once the I-95 landfill near Lorton, Virginia, is now dozens of acres of rolling green fields dotted by more than 200 metal pipes emerging from the grass.

The pipes – wellheads for natural gas – are collecting methane generated by more than 10 million tons of decomposing garbage dumped by Washington, D.C.-area residents over the last 30 years.

A vacuum pump draws the gas from underground, through the wellheads, and connects it to roughly 14 miles of pipeline running throughout the landfill. Under each wellhead, there’s a three-foot bore hole that extends 110 feet down into the waste mass.

Although it closed in 1995, officials expect the landfill to emit gas for at least the next decade.

Finding gold in landfills

On its most productive days, the landfill generates 2,000 cubic feet of gas per minute – enough to create 4.9 megawatts of electricity, explained Fairfax County environmental engineer Chris Meoli.

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Companies are showing greater interest in renewable natural gas as an alternative to gasoline and diesel.

That’s more than enough to power the Noman M. Cole wastewater treatment plant three miles down the road, saving the county as much as $500,000 a year in power costs, according to a 2015 county report. What’s left over is sold to the grid.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills are among the nation’s largest sources of methane, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all methane emissions generated by human activity in 2012.

That’s why advocates of landfill gas projects like the one in Fairfax County say these efforts have enormous environmental benefits –  first, by capturing harmful methane emissions that would otherwise contribute to climate change and second, by replacing more carbon-heavy fuels for power and transportation.

Moreover, there’s no shortage of garbage. According to the group Energy Vision, Americans dump about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, including 70 million tons of food and yard waste.

It’s a clean energy opportunity the nation is literally throwing away.

[Also on Longitudes: Not Your Grandfather’s Factories]

One man’s trash…

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 All signs point to greater demand for renewable natural gas.

Advances in waste management, along with recent changes in federal and state policy, are prompting a potential boom in bio-methane.

That includes not just landfills, but also sewage treatment plants, dairy farms and other sources of organic waste.

Companies are showing greater interest in renewable natural gas as an alternative to gasoline and diesel.

In May 2015, UPS announced an agreement with natural gas fuels maker Clean Energy Fuels to use renewable natural gas from bio-methane in its delivery fleet.

UPS said it expects to use 1.5 million gallon equivalents of renewable natural gas annually, making it the nation’s largest user of renewable natural gas vehicle fuel in the shipping industry.

Mike Whitlatch, Vice President of Global Energy and Procurement at UPS, said the transition to biogas is “an obvious one” because so much of the company’s fleet already uses conventional, fossil-based natural gas.

“We’re trying to reduce our impact on the environment – customers are simply demanding it,” Whitlatch said. “For us to remain competitive, we have to remain sustainable in a future carbon-constrained world.”

But Whitlatch added that renewable natural gas vehicle fuel became affordable enough only recently to convince fleet owners to make the shift.

[Also on Longitudes: Can Boomers and Millennials Save America’s Start-Up Engine?]

Demand meets supply

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Renewable natural gas meets a long-awaited industry need for a less carbon-intensive fuel.

All signs point to greater demand for renewable natural gas.

Based on a “life-cycle” analysis – taking into account the carbon intensity of production and distribution – renewable natural gas has a carbon footprint that’s up to 90 percent less than that of gasoline, according to analyses by the Argonne National Laboratory.

By comparison, conventional natural gas vehicle fuel has a carbon footprint that’s only 6 percent to 11 percent less than gasoline.

UPS’s Whitlatch said renewable natural gas meets a long-awaited industry need for a less carbon-intensive fuel.

“Electricity has many more options, such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydro,” he explained. “Heavy-duty transportation only has a few viable options, with lower carbon intensity and the supply at scale.”

However, the vast majority of landfills in the United States aren’t capturing landfill gas emissions for either power or for fuel.

Of approximately 2,400 operating or recently closed landfills in the United States, the EPA estimates that about 645 of them have landfill gas projects.

At least 440 more sites across the country could support a project, the EPA said, but many are instead “flaring” (burning) the methane they generate to comply with federal regulations that now prohibit “fugitive” landfill gas emissions.

Capturing the gas from these 440 landfills could generate 7 million megawatt hours – enough to heat 1.1 million homes – and save emissions from 86 million barrels of oil, the EPA estimates.

Taking 10 million cars off the road?

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If we were to cap every landfill today, we’re talking about methane emissions for another 30 to 100 years.

Johannes Escudero, Executive Director of the industry-led Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, said there’s potential to produce more than 7 billion diesel gallon equivalents of renewable natural gas vehicle fuel per year.

“That would eliminate the equivalent of more than 10 million cars coming off the road,” he said.

But for this to happen, policymakers need to stop overlooking bio-methane in favor of what seem to be more glamorous alternatives.

“We put a lot of our investment dollars and policy focus on wind and solar,” Escudero said. “But if we were to cap every landfill today, we’re talking about methane emissions for another 30 to 100 years. We need to incentivize development projects that capture those gases and put them to good use, whether it’s electricity, heating, or transportation fuel.” goldbrown2

This article was adapted from an original piece on Washington Monthly. Click here to read the full article.

UPS will purchase about fifteen million gallons of renewable diesel every year for the next three years, enough to power about 7,500, or 7-1/2 percent of its vehicles. Mike Whitlatch discusses with Yale Climate Connections:

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Anne Kim is editor of Republic 3.0.

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