Use That Gas: Regs Ignite Methane Market

Prodded in part by more stringent landfill gas regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., public disapproval of these nocuous emissions finally has resulted in landfill methane gas (LFG) being viewed as a valuable asset on a widescale basis.

"It's always been difficult to get people to read about such a technical issue," said EPA's Tom Kerr, program manager for the agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP). "But people are having a change of tune lately. We're focusing on the many community benefits these projects can have. People are looking at landfills in a new light."

Powering Vehicles When Stu Tays, president of TQM Engineering, Los Angeles, talked about his four-year struggle to bring his enterprise "Duel Fuel" to fruition, the former airspace defense engineer became as ignited and combustible as the technology he's marketing.

Tays knew he had a potential hit when an LFG extraction program he'd worked on at the Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles produced a 98-percent pure methane product that fueled a small fleet of 15 vehicles for the city's sanitation district.

The typical components of LFG are 45 to 55 percent methane, 35 to 45 percent carbon dioxide, with the balance being nitrogen, oxygen and trace contaminants. "I said to myself, 'This thing really works, and if it works here, it should work somewhere else,'" he said. "But, in 1993, the idea was way ahead of its time."

According to Tays, the LFG business in the early '90s was focused on power plants.

"Anytime you wanted to talk to a landfill operator about burning methane gas in his vehicles, his answer would be, `I know nothing about vehicle fuel, and I don't want to know. I want to make electricity, and I want to make money,'" Tays recalled.

When he decided to approach his technology's end users, vehicle owners, they expressed disinterest because diesel fuel was inexpensive and plentiful.

"It finally dawned on me that, for people to see [the technology's] economic value, I had to get to the executive responsible for the trucks and the landfills."

After several long years and uphill battles to have his technology recognized as a viable alternative to diesel fuel, he now is in the final weeks of negotiation with a large waste management company to power its collection vehicle fleet with Duel Fuel.

Tays' product is a blend of diesel and purified methane gas that ignites under compression without vehicle owners having to convert their standard engines. For about $15,000, a kit allows vehicle owners to store 30 gallons of on-board fuel.

"You can do it on any diesel-powered truck," Tays said. "And, when you sell the truck, you can take the system off and put in on another truck."

The economic savings are impressive. "I can produce the equivalent of a gallon of diesel in natural gas for about 26 cents," Tays continued. "It burns about the same as a gallon of diesel per mile, and the emissions will be at least 40 percent less."

Combined with the emission reduction credit programs provided by many states which offer actual dollar credits for reduced air emissions, Tays said time and technology finally may be catching up with one another.

Direct Gas Sales Of the 150 LFG utilization projects across the country, 35 are direct feeds into a dedicated pipeline or a medium Btu project. Only five are high Btu pipeline projects.

Allegheny Energy Resources (AER) in Pittsburgh has been working on medium and high Btu projects "full-time for the last two years," according to its executive vice president Martin Pomerantz.

A medium Btu project involves a fuel user who currently uses natural gas or oil. A conversion is made to the user's combustion equipment so that LFG (or a combination of LFG and natural gas) can be used to meet the user's energy consumption needs.

"We work with the end user to modify his combustion equipment so that he can use Btu gas or natural gas or some combination," Pomerantz explained.

A high Btu project results in methane gas refinement by separating out the carbon dioxide and then elevating the methane to 960 Btus per cubic foot before it is put into a pipeline. AER will take the reuse factor one step further by liquifying the carbon dioxide which will be sold to industrial manufacturers and the food industry.

"Our mission is to use landfill gas and find non-electric uses for it," Pomerantz said. The company has specific demographic criteria to determine its market.

"We look for areas in which methane has a value as a gas either because it's located remotely from the gas fields or the delivery network is filled to capacity," he continued. "We're also looking for areas of the country where there is a need for carbon dioxide which would result in a high BTU project."

AER signs agreements with landfill users who grant their gas rights to the company for a 15- to 20-year period.

"We supply all of the capital for the landfill gas project," Pomerantz said. "We also provide some of the money for the collection systems and operations, plus we pay the landfill a royalty based on how much gas it generates.

"Landfill operators typically have looked at methane gas and collection programs as liabilities because it costs money to collect and operate a system. We look at it as a resource that we can use. We'll help [landfill operators] to offset the costs and, in some cases, we can eliminate it."

For a medium Btu direct end user, the methane gas use can result in a 20 percent gas cost reduction. For a high Btu direct end user, the savings can range 5 to 10 percent.

"There's something else more important," Pomerantz stressed. "We're willing to sign long-term gas supply contracts. Therefore, we can give an end user long-term guaranteed pricing which they can't get from their natural gas supplier."

The technology and interest in methane gas has caught more than the attention and favor of landfill operators, state regulators and industry marketeers. Methane gas' beneficial and innovative uses have crept outside the circle of solid waste professionals, much to their surprise.

For example, last year, innovative students in a Missouri high school ecology club catapulted to national fame after they convinced school officials to use methane from the nearby landfill as a heat source. Following four years of planning and development, the Pattonville High School in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, installed a 3,600-foot pipeline from the landfill to the basement boilers, and now is the nation's only high school that is heated by methane gas, according to EPA officials.

In Wake County, N.C., solid waste officials use their landfill's methane gas collection system as a public relations tool.

Once undeveloped and rural, the fast-growing Raleigh suburbs have finally reached the gates of the 220-acre North Wake Landfill. Construction of hundreds of upper middle class homes adjacent to the facility represent a permanent demographic change to the area.

"Our [gas] system has been a real plus," said Phil Carter, director of Wake County's solid waste management department, Raleigh, N.C.

Due to the area's expanding development, Carter publicizes the fact that they use an active methane gas recovery system that is piped next door to Mallinckrodt Inc., an industry which produces one-third of the world's acetaminophen supply.

Gas from the landfill is expected to provide the plant with approximately 15 percent of its daily steam needs and result in a 20 percent cost savings. "We were able to prove quickly that the numbers were there to justify a significant cost savings on [Mallinckrodt's] end," Carter said. "And, from the public relations side, the system has been a selling point."

LMOP's Industry Ally Program can help landfill operators generate ideas for their individual methane gas programs. The program is comprised of professionals who provide information on projects they're developing or have worked on in the past.

LMOP keeps this as a good record on what's going on in the industry. "They also review EPA's proposed documents so we can be sure they're real and not just something we conjured up in Washington that can't be applied in the field," Kerr said.

Pomerantz also has a word of caution for landfill operators considering soliciting proposals from methane gas vendors. "We've seen some very unrealistic request for proposals," he said.

"Part of the problem is that landfill operators are looking for developers to take care of everything which, in a lot of cases, is unrealistic. We've seen solicitations expecting the developer to make up for the fact that the [operator] hasn't put any money at all into a collection system."

"We can reduce expenditures depending on the amount of gas and proximity of the end user," he continued, "but it's hard to say we can take care of everything."