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Collected Thoughts: Power from the Pile

Landfill gas energy and its role in integrated solid waste management.

Landfill gas (LFG) energy isan important component of a community’s integrated approach to solid waste management, given that the use of landfills continues to remain the predominant method of waste disposal in the United States. All communities need to manage and dispose of solid waste. Municipal managers know that a range of strategies and treatment processes must be employed to effectively handle a waste stream. Elements of an integrated solid waste management plan include: source reduction, recycling, composting, waste-to-energy, and landfills. LFG energy does not compete with other solid waste disposal or diversion alternatives, nor does it encourage additional landfilling.

LFG energy projects have a number of environmental and economic benefits. They directly reduce methane emissions from landfills, and indirectly reduce carbon dioxide emissions by displacing fossil fuel use. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and an ozone precursor, and LFG energy projects have significant climate and air quality benefits. In addition, LFG use saves facilities money on fuel costs. These projects create jobs during construction and operation, and in some cases LFG energy projects have attracted new businesses all together.

LFG energy projects promote beneficial utilization of LFG collected from existing waste that has not been successfully diverted from landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) tracks approximately 2,400 landfills that collectively contain more than 7 billion short tons of waste. Even if all of these landfills closed tomorrow, all of this waste currently in the ground would still be generating landfill gas. This landfill gas should be used as energy where technically and economically feasible to do so.

Landfill gas can be used for energy in several ways: it can be used to generate electricity, used as fuel for industrial operations, upgraded to the natural gas pipeline or converted to vehicle fuel. The majority of the 558 U.S.-based LFG energy projects are used to generate electricity, with about 1,714 megawatts (MW) in installed generation capacity. LFG energy projects also provide 310 million standard cubic feet of gas daily to direct users, including corporations, such as BMW, SC Johnson and Mars, who are using landfill gas in industrial operations to meet their sustainability goals.

While great strides have been made in the past few years in bringing LFG energy projects to market, there is still more energy that can be tapped from the existing waste in the ground. EPA’s LMOP database shows that there are currently 515 candidate landfills for new LFG projects. These landfills have a total gas generation potential of 215 billion cubic feet per year or a total electric potential of 1,170 MW.

Each community, when employing their waste management strategies, should follow the waste hierarchy, starting with source reduction, reuse and recycling. However, many communities do have an existing landfill and may continue to use that landfill for years to come.

LFG energy can be an effective strategy to manage landfill gas from waste that is not effectively diverted from landfills. To find out if your local landfill can be tapped for energy and more about EPA’s free resources and technical support, visit www.epa.gov/lmop.

Rachel Goldstein is the Team Leader of the EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program. This program brings together companies, state agencies, organizations, landfills and communities with industry experts and practitioners, to promote environmentally and economically beneficial LFG recovery and use projects.

Got your own point to make on the subject of solid waste, recycling or sustainability? Submit op-ed proposals to saverett@wasteage.com.

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