Waste Management uses Washington County landfill to generate electricity

Posted April 8, 2011

Gas-powered electric plants are a hot topic among utilities these days, with their promise of lower emissions and abundant fuel.

If that conjures thoughts of drilling rigs and frac trucks, it also should call up images of landfills and sludge, a renewable source of gas.

“We’re trying to do something other than burying trash, (because) it’s actually a commodity,” said Mike Rind, director of Marcellus Shale operations for Texas-based Waste Management.

Waste Management’s Pittsburgh operations have, for decades, been converting landfill gas to usable natural gas that’s sold to utilities. So have other landfills in the area, but only two — Arden Landfill and Seneca Landfill — are currently using that gas to generate electricity, according to the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Expanding waste-to-energy production has the potential to replace some fossil fuel extraction and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A bill pending in Congress would allocate $1 billion for waste-to-energy project developers to claim a renewable energy investment tax credit.

Waste energy is derived from the decomposition of organic materials, such as plants and manure. Bacteria feed on that material and produce methane gas as a byproduct. Landfill operators suck out this gas through suction tubes and either flare it off or use it to make energy — gas or electricity generated through gas-fired turbines.

Waste Management, one of the nation’s largest waste handlers with 119 landfill-gas-to-energy plants worldwide, has been growing its domestic roster of gas to electricity plants.

Last year, the company began generating electricity from the gas at its Arden Landfill in Washington, Pa., marking the first Pittsburgh electric plant in the firm’s portfolio. The gas powers a 4.8 megawatt engine, which produces enough power to supply about 4,000 homes. The electricity is sold to West Penn Power.

It’s partly because of the Marcellus Shale, which has driven down natural gas pricing, that the Arden Landfill now produces electricity. The lower prices, Rind said, make “an electrical plant more desirable than a high Btu (gas) plant.”

Starting small

For several years, Ed Vogel, vice president of Seneca Landfill in Jackson Township, has been trying to make the economics work for his landfilling business. In 2008, with the help of a state grant, Vogel bought a small, 335-kilowatt generator, which he has been running off the gas produced at one of the company’s facilities.

In January, Vogel also put online a gas gathering system that collects the landfill gas he used to flare, and compresses it to meet the specifications of Peoples Natural Gas distribution lines.

The project cost several million dollars to install, he said, and when construction began in 2008, Vogel planned to pay off the debt in seven to ten years. Whether that happens will depend on the price of gas, he said.

Currently, if everything at the plant runs smoothly, it will generate between 1 billion and 1.5 billion Btus per day and that energy will be sold to Peoples at market rates.

“The one thing I want to look at is, am I better off buying power from the grid, or taking some gas for myself and generating electricity?” Vogel said.

Vogel said one difficulty in making long-term capital investments such as waste-to-energy systems is that landfill licenses have a 10-year term.

He said he’s hopeful that the new leadership at the DEP might consider a different approach: License the design for the expected lifetime of a landfill — typically about 40 years — and issue 10-year operating permits.

Running behind

Gas-to-electricity projects are much more advanced outside the U.S.

“In Europe and Japan, they’re a little more resource-conscious than we are here,” said Frank Bernheisel, vice president at Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., a solid waste management consulting firm in Virginia.

“In Europe, they have essentially put a ban on landfilling of materials that can be used for energy so it costs more to landfill, whereas in Pennsylvania, you have a couple of large landfills that attract waste (even) from out of state.”

That means landfilling is still the most competitively priced method of disposal, even factoring in the cost of diesel for trucks to carry it to landfills.