Landfill Methane an Alternative Source of Power

With rising oil and natural gas prices, alternative energy sources are getting another look — including the prospect of generating electricity from methane. The gas is created naturally by landfills, and power plants all over the United States are now burning it to make electricity. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeline Brand. Coming up, some readers love particular books so much they will read them into podcasts for you.

CHADWICK: First this, another prospect for alternative fuels, a big topic for President Bush's speech last night, methane gas, smelly, but abundant from rotting trash at landfills. You can actually mine landfills for pockets of methane and then burn it like natural gas to power almost anything, including turbines, to produce electricity. From North Carolina Public Radio Jessica Jones reports.

Ms. JESSICA JONES (Reporter, North Carolina Public Radio): On the outskirts of Winston-Salem rolling green hills stretch on for miles. Almost everyday Bob Biscaborn(ph) wades through waist high grass to the summit of one of those hills to admire the view. But he tells visitors what's underneath isn't so pretty.

Mr. BOB BISCABORN (Engineer): You're walking on top of about 90 to 100 feet deep of garbage. There's about 15 million tons of garbage underneath us right here.

Ms. JONES: Biscaborn, who's an engineer, is standing on top of a covered landfill that sprawls out over the equivalent of more than 66 football fields. He's in charge of harvesting methane here to run a power plant down the hill. Biscaborn points to a well that looks like a pole with a cap on it.

BRAND: This well along with all the other wells that ultimately are all connected together is a primary fuel for the power plant. It's their only source of fuel down there and the beneficial work here is we're generating electricity for about five or six thousand homes here twenty-four hours a day around the clock.

Ms. JONES: The company Biscaborn works for, DTE Energy, sells the power to a local utility which then sells it to customers. This project isn't unusual. It's one of about 400 that have sprung up from California to New Hampshire in the last twenty years.

Ms. RACHEL GOLDSTEIN (Environmental Protection Agency): Nationwide we think that there are at least another 600 landfills that could support a project economically.

Ms. JONES: Rachel Goldstein helps direct the Environmental Protection Agency's effort to promote landfill methane projects. She says right now there's enough methane being mined to provide 700,000 homes with electricity and there's enough untapped gas for 700,000 more. Methane is a greenhouse gas and Goldstein says the federal government requires big landfills to burn it off.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: The reduction of methane emissions by utilizing landfill gas is certainly an important use of these projects. And then, of course, today with the rising energy prices we have even more important reasons to use landfill gas because it is a less expensive energy source.

Ms. JONES: Energy produced by methane costs about half as much as energy from natural gas, but building a landfill methane project is expensive. It costs several million dollars and it's not easy to get local utilities to buy power from these projects. Jim Voss has a small company called Methane LLC that's working on a dozen landfill methane projects in New York and North Carolina.

Mr. JIM VOSS (Methane LLC): The utilities basically are in the business of delivering large quantities of electricity throughout the state of North Carolina. Some of them view us as an irritant and not necessarily as a contributor to their solutions.

Ms. JONES: In North Carolina utilities only pay about three cents per kilowatt hour for electricity produced by landfills. The state sets the rate and according to Voss that's not enough to break even. Fortunately Voss is being subsidized by an environmental group, but there are often hidden costs in buying power or in doing business with independent producers. Dana Yagainien(ph) is a spokesperson for Progress Energy.

Ms. DANA YAGAINIEN (Spokesperson, Progress Energy): Another consideration is where is that location. You know, where is that landfill, for example, located. It needs to be close by or have access to transmission lines or distribution lines. It's got to have a way to get on the grid pretty easily.

Ms. JONES: And that's what Jim Voss is struggling with. After three years he learned that his project was just a little too far away from Progress Energy's power lines, so he'll have to use a third party. If there are no additional obstacles Voss hopes to be providing electricity by April 1st. Voss says the experience has been more complicated then he ever imagined.

Mr. VOSS: It's something that having started down that path we're committed to (unintelligible) and fulfill our obligations to it. Would I do it again? Probably only hesitantly.

Ms. JONES: Voss estimates there are enough landfills full of methane in North Carolina to supply about 20 percent of the electricity the state needs. But he says until there are more incentives to set those projects up, entrepreneurs like himself will probably end up taking their business somewhere else.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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