Landfill Fuel Cell Project Begins Amid Energy Concerns

As traditional energy sources become more costly and face stricter regulations, Braintree Electric Light Department (BELD), Braintree, Mass., is investing $1.5 million in a fuel cell designed to run on landfill gas.

With the help of a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., and a $100,000 grant from the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, Boston, BELD purchased its fuel cell and the methane-cleaning technology necessary to extract hydrogen from landfill gas in Sept. 1999. Fuel cell manufacturer International Fuel Cells (IFC), South Windsor, Conn., then installed their system at Braintree's closed municipal landfill.

The methane-cleaning technology, developed in 1996 through a joint project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and IFC, uses a series of charcoal beds to separate acid rain-causing hydrogen sulfide and smog-causing volatile organic compounds from the pure hydrogen in landfill gas, says John Trocciola, IFC's Northeastern regional manager.

Once the pure hydrogen is separated, it is fed into the fuel cell, where it is combined with oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water, according to Greg Dolan, deputy executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, Washington, D.C. “It's the reverse of electrolysis,” he explains.

Rather than burning landfill gas to power a turbine — a process that Dolan says produces high emissions and is only 40 percent to 60 percent efficient — fuel cells use a chemical reaction to create electricity with “near zero emissions.”

EPA tests have confirmed that, without using combustion, fuel cells can generate electricity, water and heat with practically no emissions.

And, fuel cell technology has been around for more than 160 years, Dolan notes.

Projects such as BELD's — while not yet cost-efficient electricity sources — could be significant if natural gas prices continue to rise, says Ronald Spiegel, a senior research engineer at the EPA's research and development office in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“Based on fuel-cell technology, U.S. landfills have the potential to generate around 3 gigawatts of electricity,” Spiegel says, adding that landfill gas-powered fuel cells are more energy-efficient than landfill gas combustion.

Initially, BELD encountered some barriers to the fuel cell's operation.

“We have only been running on landfill gas for two months since we went online, because nitrogen levels were too high,” says the utility's engineering manager, H. Joseph Morley.

Morley believes this is because the landfill was capped incorrectly 18 years ago.

“There was a lot of leakage where the cap ended and the clay began,” which allowed oxygen to mix with decomposing waste to produce high levels of nitrogen, Morley says.

To address this problem, BELD began repairing the leaks late last year, and Morley expects repairs to be completed this month.

Another aspect of BELD's solution was creating a fuel-blending station that mixes landfill gas with natural gas to reduce nitrogen content. Now under construction, the station should be installed before June 2001, Morley says. Once the system is running, BELD will feed landfill gas-generated electricity directly into the city's power grid.

Admittedly, generating electricity from landfill gas-powered fuel cells is expensive in the beginning, both the EPA and Morley say.

“When you add everything up, the price [of producing this electricity] is more than what the utilities will pay for it,” the EPA's Spiegel notes.

However, fuel cells' reliability is attracting attention despite high costs, Morley says.

“Fuel cells are very expensive, but they're also very reliable,” he says. “If the work you're doing is so valuable that you can't afford any power outage, fuel cells make a lot of sense.”

California's recent energy crisis and rising natural gas prices are prompting many to take a second look at fuel cells, says IFC's Trocciola.

For these and other reasons, IFC has seen its business grow in recent years. Since the 1960s, IFC has built fuel cells for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) missions, but now the company produces commercial models used in applications worldwide. Currently, 210 IFC commercial fuel cells are in operation at police stations, wastewater treatment plants and even a Japanese brewery, Trocciola says.

“What you're seeing here is that people are rethinking energy. California has raised a lot of awareness,” he says. “We've gotten a lot of calls about our fuel cells recently.”

Additionally, the federal DOE's Annual Energy Outlook 2001 lists landfill gas as a major renewable energy source expected to grow significantly during the next 20 years.

“Electricity generation from municipal solid waste … is projected to increase by 15.9 billion kilowatt hours from 1999 to 2020,” the report says.

These facts have not escaped large hauling companies' attention. Paul Pabor, director of landfill gas-to-energy programs at Houston-based Waste Management Inc., says the company has not yet initiated any fuel cell projects, but notes the company is “watching the technology closely.”

Currently, IFC is developing both residential and mobile fuel cells, Trocciola says.

“If we have anything to do with it,” he adds, “you'll have a fuel cell-operated car soon.”