Michels Energizes Gas Growth

You'd think Mike Michels, director for San Mateo, Calif.-based EMCON has his hands full managing two landfill gas (LFG) design centers - Naperville, Ill., and Fort Worth, Texas - from his Kiel, Wis., office.

But there's more to Michel's vocation than office work. Besides coordinating LFG consulting services for EMCON affiliates, this registered professional engineer and Michigan Tech University alum also serves as the director of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America's (SWANA) Landfill Gas Management Division and travels around the globe to speak at solid waste conferences.

Michels recently took time out of his hectic schedule to discuss the driving forces in the LFG industry with Waste Age.

WA: What are the key issues in managing LFG?

MM: Two key issues for LFG managers are: over-regulation and long-term care costs. For various reasons, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has targeted LFG for numerous regulations, including: New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), Emission Guidelines, New Source Review, Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) and now, the Urban Air Toxics Strategy. All these regulations have bewildered many landfill operators and consultants.

For the first time in the history of the United States, landfill emissions are being regulated and re-regulated. Rules overlap, and sometimes conflict, with each other, leading to confusion and inefficiency. Many landfill operators nationwide have told me that their long-term care LFG management costs are more than their groundwater monitoring costs. These costs can be significant, thereby impacting disposal costs.

WA: What misconceptions about environmental regulations still exist about LFG?

MM: The biggest misconceptions and lack of coordination in the LFG industry involve emission control and the beneficial use of LFG.

LFG rules, such as NSPS, have been promulgated to reduce the passive venting into the atmosphere of LFG emissions, such as non-methane organic compounds (NMOCs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and methane.

To control these emissions, LFG is collected and routed to a control device - such as a flare, electrical generator or other beneficial-use option - which must have a minimum destruction efficiency.

Through the ignition process, the control device converts LFG to nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur oxides (SOx), hydrogen chloride (HCL) and other compounds that are less hazardous than the raw VOCs and NMOCs.

However, other regulations, in turn, limit the amount of NOx, CO2, SOx, HCL and other compounds that the flare can emit. These regulations don't take into account that:

* the control device is a pollution control device and reduces emissions;

* using LFG for electrical generation reduces the amount of coal that is used to generate electricity; and

* emissions from coal-fired power plants are much worse than those from LFG-fired plants.

WA: How do you anticipate the demands in LFG management evolving?

MM: I see a dramatic increase in the number of landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) plants. Today, approximately 200 LFGTE plants are in operation. If federal and state governments extend tax credits and subsidies, I believe we will have a total of 400 plants in operation in the next five years and a total of 600 plants in operation by the year 2009. This will be very positive for the LFG industry because we will not only reduce America's dependency on foreign oil, we also will reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses from the use of coal.

Furthermore, to reduce the cost of long-term care for our nation's landfills and LFG collection systems, we will see a lot of partnering between landfill owners and land developers for post-closure use of property. Already, some golf companies, such as ENCap Golf, Jacksonville, Fla., are negotiating the use of landfill properties for long-term recreational facilities. These partnerships are a win-win solution and will become the norm in the next five to 10 years.

Finally, I see the "dry tomb" concept of landfilling being phased out in favor of the more environmentally friendly bioreactor landfill. Both anaerobic and aerobic bioreactor landfilling is occurring in the United States and will continue to increase in the next five years.

WA: What can government do to encourage more LFGTE projects/developments?

MM: Programs in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania are wonderful examples of ways to encourage LFGTE projects. For example, Michigan and Illinois have passed laws that raise the rates - above what the federal government has specified - that utilities must pay for electricity generated by LFGTE projects. Such state government support can boost the economic viability of these developments.

In Pennsylvania, retail wheeling of power is allowed, and many LFG-to-electricity projects are being developed where the landfill owner sells power directly to a local industry rather than to the local power company.

The Renewable Energy Production Incentive program, which subsidizes municipalities with 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), needs to be funded over a 10-year period rather than year-by-year, and LFG needs to get higher priority in the cycle.

In addition, the federal government should require electric companies to generate a minimum amount of power with renewable fuels such as LFG. This is referred to as a "renewable portfolio" and would go a long way toward encouraging LFGTE.

All these examples will encourage LFG-to-electricity projects. However, more needs to be done to encourage LFGTE in other forms such as boiler fuel, vehicle fuel, heating, leachate evaporation, etc. To do this, laws promoting tax credits need to be passed.

In addition, EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) is doing a wonderful job matching landfill owners with LFG developers and helping them to think "out of the box" to get development kick-started. The federal government needs to make sure LMOP continues to function and promote all forms of LFGTE.

WA: What has SWANA's LFG management division accomplished, and what does it seek to accomplish?

MM: SWANA's LFG management division has more than 350 members dedicated to advancing and promoting sound LFG management and cost-effective, environmental solutions. The division represents SWANA's members when commenting on draft rules. In addition, we educate SWANA members and federal and state regulators about the rules.

The division has accomplished numerous tasks in its 22 years, including:

* extensions to Internal Revenue Service Section 29 tax credits for LFG;

* training more than 1,000 associates in design and operations of LFG systems;

* preparing and updating four LFG manuals of practice on subjects such as health and safety, and operation and maintenance.

* providing a clearinghouse for technical experts and information on LFG;

* organizing 22 LFG annual symposiums; and

* providing technical comments on regulations to benefit SWANA members.

The division currently is:

* advocating electric utility deregulation and greenhouse gas emissions trading programs;

* establishing the first nationwide database repository of LFG control and utilization systems;

* expanding SWANA's training programs;

* preparing new manuals of practice for LFG generation estimates; and

* providing input on existing and future LFG regulations.

These and similar programs are managed by the 10 active committees within the division.

WA: How well-trained are today's landfill operators in dealing with LFG?

MM: Most LFG operators have been trained on the job. However, due to increasing regulation and advancements in technology, more LFG operators now are being trained in a classroom.

SWANA and other organizations have excellent LFG operator training classes that typically run two to three days long and include classroom discussion on LFG generation theory, wellfield balancing and controlling air intrusion to prevent underground fires while maintaining emissions standards.

SWANA's training also includes hands-on wellfield balancing. This LFG operator training was scheduled at four locations in 1999: February in San Diego; March in Orlando, Fla.; August in Baltimore, Md.; and October in Reno, Nev.

WA: What advice do you have for engineering students regarding landfills and LFG?

MM: I started as a drafting technician in West Texas and worked my way up to staff engineer. The best advice I can offer is to work hard and to get well-rounded experiences during the first five years of your career. Then, after the five years, if you decide landfills and LFG are of most interest to you, surround yourself with mentors who are willing to teach you everything they know and are open-minded enough to listen.

Landfills are getting larger and fewer in number. The consolidation of the solid waste industry is a natural progression for a maturing marketplace. Due to this consolidation, employees in this field must have many skills and must wear many hats.

In order to excel in the landfill and LFG industry, you must understand water resources, mechanical equipment, grading plans, soils, time management, marketing and, of course, economics.

Got a LFG question? Michels can be reached at (920) 894-4088. E-mail: [email protected] For information on SWANA, contact Brian Guzzone at: (301) 585-2898. E-mail: [email protected] And for information on EPA's LMOP, contact Shelley Cohen at: (202) 564-9797.