MAKING USE OF landfill gas (LFG) is not only good for the environment. In an era of rising energy costs, the gas has emerged as a way to turn trash into cheap energy and generate powerful economic benefits.

Every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) confers awards that recognize the innovative strategies of organizations that use LFG to generate electricity, heat, hot water, environmental benefits and good will. This year, the Washington, D.C.-based LMOP, a voluntary program that helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by supporting landfill gas-to-energy (LFGE) project development, announced five award winners. Each organization has designed an LFGE project for business and environmental benefits. LMOP and Waste Age congratulate this year's winners.

Project of the Year: BMW Manufacturing

For the past year, the BMW Manufacturing facility in Spartanburg, S.C., has been generating electricity to power its operations. This is a dramatic shift from two years ago, when the plant was purchasing all of its electrical power.

BMW production facilities typically co-generate power. The original design of the Spartanburg facility, which was built in 1992, included four 1.25 megawatt (MW) natural gas turbines for co-generation. But the turbines sat idle for a decade because purchasing electricity directly cost less than the natural gas required to run the generating equipment.

In 2000, however, BMW executives wondered if it might be possible to cut utility expenses by running the turbine generators with LFG obtained from the neighboring Palmetto landfill, which is owned by Houston-based Waste Management Inc. BMW solicited proposals and settled on an idea presented by Ameresco, an energy service firm based in Framingham, Mass.

Over the next three years, BMW, Ameresco and Waste Management hammered out a 20-year agreement, under which Ameresco would purchase 4,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of LFG from Palmetto and resell it to BMW.

A big challenge arose in building a 9.5-mile pipeline to transport LFG from the landfill to the BMW plant. While slogging through one of the rainiest periods in South Carolina history, the company laid a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe under a river, major highway crossings, a railroad crossing and rocky terrain, taking care to avoid existing underground utility installations. Next, Ameresco installed a processing plant at Palmetto to clean, dry and compress the LFG. Meanwhile, BMW modified its four natural gas turbines to work with LFG. The modifications were necessary because LFG contains only about half the methane of natural gas. So the equipment has to burn more LFG to reach maximum electricity production levels.

The system went online in April 2003. Today, the modified BMW turbines are pumping out 4.4 MWs of electricity, which supply about one-quarter of BMW's electricity needs. The system also satisfies the plant's hot water requirements and a substantial portion of its heating and cooling requirements.

In addition to cutting BMW's utility costs, the installation has reduced methane emissions by roughly the same amount that is produced by driving 105 million miles per year.

Project of the Year: Antioch Community High School

Like most businesses, educational institutions must struggle to contain costs. In a school, money spent to light, heat and cool buildings is money not spent to educate students.

In 2001, RMT Inc., an energy services firm based in Madison, Wis., approached administrators at the 262,000 square-foot (sq. ft.) Antioch Community High School in Antioch, Ill., and suggested an LFG project that would enable the school to cut its utility costs by generating its own electricity from LFG.

The gas would come from the HOD landfill, a Waste Management facility that had closed 16 years before and was situated only a half mile away — at a Superfund site. The EPA and state of Illinois had recently established final closure activities for the site. As part of the activities, an LFG management system with 35 LFG extraction wells, a blower and a flare were installed.

RMT and school officials discussed the idea for a year and negotiated an agreement under which RMT would turn the LFG into Antioch's primary energy source. To fund the project, RMT acquired a $500,000 grant from Illinois, and the school district issued $1.5 million in bonds.

The project became operational in October 2003, and the high school became the first in the country to use LFG to produce both heat and electricity. “The system supplies most of the school's power,” says Mark Torresani, RMT project manager for the job. “[The school] can buy extra electricity when it needs it. During periods when the system produces more power than it needs, it sells electricity to the grid.”

RMT's original estimates suggested that the system would save the school $100,000 per year in utility costs. With today's higher natural gas prices, however, the savings have increased to $120,000 per year and slashed the payback period to well within the 20-year projected LFG supply.

The landfill produces a fairly small amount of LFG. According to Torresani, RMT had to design a system that would get the most out of just 300 cfm of LFG. Over time, gas production likely will decline to even lower volumes.

The key to the design is 12 microturbines, manufactured by Chatsworth, Calif.-based Capstone Turbine Corp., that produce 360 kilowatts (KWs) of electricity when operating together. “When the gas level drops off, we can take out one turbine and run 11, and so on,” Torresani says. “At that point, the system will produce less power, but will still produce some power. That's the advantage of many small engines compared to one large engine.”

Other components of the system are fairly standard. At the landfill, RMT installed a gas compressor and a super chiller to compress, clean and dry the gas, making it fit the microturbines' requirements. RMT also installed a one-half mile pipeline to move the gas from the landfill to the school. The HDPE line was installed beneath a stream, a road, a baseball field and a railroad track at depths of 4 to 6 feet.

“Not only has this project turned a former Superfund landfill into a source of renewable energy, this project serves as a great learning tool for the students and the community,” Voell says.

Community Partner of the Year: Prince George's County, Md.

Prince George's County, Md., has worked in the LFG field for 20 years. Last year's projects include an LFG generating facility that sells electricity to the grid and earns $750,000 in revenues for the county. During 2003, the county also facilitated the development of an LFG system that provides heat for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, located in Greenbelt, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Goddard is the first federal facility in the nation to use LFG.

Prince George's County has been using LFG since 1985, when its Department of Environmental Resources (DER) engineered an LFG recovery system for the Brown Station Road landfill, along with an LFG-fired electric power generator.

The installation includes a compressor and a pipeline that carries LFG 2.5 miles to the county's correctional facility. There, three 850 KW generators powered by LFG-fired Waukesha engines produce power for the prison. The generating facility was commissioned in October 1987 and was one of the earliest LFG-fired electric generating facilities on the East Coast.

Last year, the county expanded the LFG operations at the Brown Station Road site, adding an electricity generating plant that sells power to the electrical grid and generates about $750,000 per year in revenues. The project represents an important step in that the county and the landfill owner have formed an agreement with a local utility and a grid interconnection company. “Usually, this is done through a contractor, and the landfill gets a revenue split,” says William P. Chamberlin, associate director of the waste management division for the DER. “Here, we own the facility and receive 100 percent of the revenues.”

While the county was expanding its LFG operations at Brown Station Road, it also was working with Waste Management Inc., which operates the county's Sandy Hill landfill, and Dallas-based Toro Energy Inc. to facilitate a direct use project for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Under the agreement, LFG from Sandy Hill is compressed, dewatered, cleaned and piped to the center, which uses the gas to generate heat. “Goddard expects to save $300,000 per year on utility costs through this project,” says Chris Voell, program manager for LMOP.

Energy Partner of the Year: General Motors

With four LFGE projects online, a fifth under construction and a couple in planning, the Detroit-based General Motors Corp. ranks as the single largest direct user of LFG in the United States. According to Al Hildreth, GM's worldwide facilities group manager for strategic planning, energy and utility services, the company currently burns 6,200 cfm of LFG per year. That translates into 1,550,000 million Btus (MMBtus), enough energy to provide electricity for 44,000 homes per year. By using LFG, GM projects cumulatively have avoided carbon dioxide emissions totaling 177,000 tons per year, which has roughly the same effect as planting approximately 30 acres of trees per year. These accomplishments led LMOP to present GM with its Energy Partner of the Year Award.

GM began using LFG in 1995 at the company's Toledo Powertrain Facility in Ohio. The 2 million sq. ft. manufacturing plant burns about 600 cfm of LFG per year and produces 130,000 to 150,000 MMBtus of energy to operate two boilers. The direct-use project pipes LFG in from a local landfill.

In the decade since the Toledo GM facility came online, the company has added three more direct use projects using about 1,500 cfm each. In 1998, GM began powering its Orion plant near Detroit with LFG instead of coal. The gas comes from the Eagle Valley landfill operated by Waste Management Inc., and the Oakland Heights landfill, which is run by Allied Waste Industries Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz. With the change, Orion's boilers burned almost 60,000 tons of coal per year. By replacing coal with LFG, the plant has cut the amount of sulfur dioxide released into the air by 40 percent, while nitrogen oxide emissions have fallen by 46 percent. Some coal helps to fire the boilers during the winter months. For most of the year, the system runs exclusively on LFG. LMOP named GM's Orion facility the 1999 Project of the Year.

In 2001, GM converted one of three boilers at its truck assembly plant in Ft. Wayne, Ind., to use LFG delivered by an 8-mile pipeline from a neighboring landfill, which now supplies 16 percent of the energy used by the plant.

GM's most recent LFG project provides the company's Shreveport, La., assembly plant with 450,000 MMBtus of energy per year. The LFG comes from the Woolworth Road landfill by way of a 7-mile pipeline. In addition to these projects, GM's Service Parts Operations headquarters in Grand Blanc, Mich., purchases 8 million KW-hours per year in electricity generated by several Granger Energy LFGE projects.

These GM projects save an average of $500,000 per year on facility energy costs. The exception is the smaller Toledo installation, which saves about $150,000 per year.

By the end of 2004, GM plans to begin using LFG to fuel boilers for the company's Oklahoma City vehicle assembly plant. Several more projects also are in development. “This is a business we want to grow,” Hildreth says. “It meets our environmental goals for sustainability and the use of renewable resources. And it makes good business sense, because it saves us money.”

Industry Partner of the Year: Ameresco

Ameresco helps clients reduce energy consumption and procures energy supplies for its customers at reduced rates. The company also develops, owns and operates various energy assets. Testifying to the growing importance of LFG as an energy source, Ameresco added LFG facilities to the asset side of its business in 2001. On the strength of the company's innovative approach to LFG projects, LMOP has declared Ameresco its Industry Partner of the Year.

“Ameresco, a relative newcomer to the LFGE field, has shown that innovation and creativity in project structure and technology can create viable projects,” says the LMOP's Voell. “The company has proven that projects can be financially successful in the absence of tax credits.”

Tax credits helped to kick-start the LFG business in the late 1990s. Under section 29 of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code, landfills that installed gas collection systems prior to July 1, 1998, can claim credits of approximately $1 per million Btus on LFG sales. The credits, whose benefits are slated to expire next year, allowed landfills and energy service firms to work out the economics of an LFGE facility. However, many LFG collection systems were installed later than the cut-off date.

Ameresco entered the LFG field in January 2001. “We've developed a business model where we don't need tax credits to develop these systems,” says Shelley Cohen, a senior project developer.

The company now operates five LFG projects and has two projects under construction, with five more in the design phase. Operational projects include the LFGE direct use installation at the BMW Manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, S.C., which earned this year's LMOP award for Project of the Year.

The company entered the field through the acquisition of an LFGE facility at the Al Turi landfill in Goshen, N.Y. “This was a distressed asset,” says Mike Bakas, vice president with Ameresco's renewable energy division. “We redesigned the control systems, improved the efficiency of the plant and so improved the return on the asset.” Today, the installation uses six reciprocating engines to produce 5 MWs of electricity, which are purchased by Orange and Rockland Utilities Inc.

At the Chicopee landfill in Massachusetts, an Ameresco project generates 5.7 MWs of electricity using Jenbacher Engines produced by General Electric. Ameresco brought the project online in February 2004 and plans to increase the power plant's capacity to 7.6 MWs over the next two years.

The fourth operational Ameresco project conveys LFG to the Ford Motor Co. Stamping and Assembly Facility in Wayne, Mich., where the gas is used in steam boilers and a 2.4 MW co-generation plant. Finally, an Ameresco installation at the Dairyland Power Cooperative in Eau Claire, Wis., generates 4 MWs of power used by the cooperative.

The five projects combine to produce 21.5 MWs of power. Over the next two to three years, additional Ameresco projects will more than double this total to 56.2 MWs, enough electricity for a community with 37,000 homes.

The Growth of LFG Projects

LMOP now counts more than 340 LFGE projects operating in the United States. Of those, more than 200 use LFG to generate electricity for sale to the nation's power grid. More than 100 LFGE installations generate power used directly for manufacturing and other industrial purposes. About a dozen projects, such as the BMW installation, use LFG to generate both electricity and heat, the agency says.

Voell sees a promising future for the program in electricity generation and direct use. The growth of green power markets and the expansion of renewable portfolio standards bode well for the future and rising natural gas prices have begun to transform LFG power generation into a viable business strategy.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.