School to Tap Trash Dump's Methane for Energy
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
The University of New Hampshire is looking at its garbage in a different way, as a source of fuel. The university wants to partner with the company Waste Management, to use a byproduct of decomposing trash to help heat and light its campus.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Any Quinton reports.
AMY QUINTON: Most of the turnkey landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire could easily pass for the grassy green hills of Ireland. It's hard to believe that more than a million tons of garbage is send here every year.
The pipes sticking out, you see are the lamp of gas wells, and all those supposed are 36-inch holes drilled onto the waste.
QUINTON: Waste Management owns this site. District manager Alan Davis walks down from the top of the landfill toward where captured methane gas is burning.
Mr. ALAN DAVIS (District Manager, Waste Management): If you could see the flares burning. There's three flares are currently there. There's two, what we call the utility candle flares on the right, and those are ones that are - just look like a big, big lighter almost.
QUINTON: Methane is a byproduct of decomposing garbage. It's also a greenhouse gas, which is why Waste Management burns it before it hits the atmosphere. But this gas is also a powerful energy source. Waste Management is already using methane from other landfills across the country to provide energy for Fortune 500 companies such as Nestle, BMW and GM. Alan Davis thought the biggest energy user next to turnkey the University of New Hampshire can also benefit from this technology.
Mr. DAVIS: The plan is those flares will be burned up once the university project comes in, and instead that gases just being wasted on those flares will be going to their project.
QUINTON: UNH trustees have given conceptual approval to build a 12 and-a-half mile pipeline to route the gas from this landfill to the campus. But it's not an easy or cheap process. Allan Braun is lead consultant for the project.
Mr. ALLAN BRAUN (Lead Consultant, Braun Consulting Group): That's a great opportunity, to be able to use a renewable fuel, but the challenges are pretty significant. One, landfill gas is full of contaminants that you would have to remove. Two, is that it has a low heat content, we measure that in British thermal units or BTUs. It's about half of what natural gas out of a pipeline would be.
QUINTON: The university would have to build not only a pipeline, but also a processing plant to clean and raise the gases' BTU content. In total, the project would cost UNH around $33 million. Waste Management's Alan Davis says it took some persuading to get UNH to consider it.
Mr. DAVIS: One you convince them that's - it can be done. It's already being done, it isn't brand new technology, and that also that there's going to be enough gas for a long time. A lot of people look at the capital investment, which is very high for something like this, and I worry that it isn't going to last long enough.
QUINTON: Davis says landfills can continue to produce methane up to 20 or 30 years after their close and capped. UNH already spends about $ 12.5 million a year for heat and electricity, a cost that increases every year. Other universities such as UCLA have used methane gas from landfills to help fuel their campuses. But UNH Office of Sustainability director Tom Kelly says this project would meet 85 percent of the campuses energy needs, larger than any other university.
Mr. TOM KELLY (Director, UNH Office of Sustainability): And in fact, part of the importance, I think of our whole approach is that it's really exploding the myth that you have to choose between the economy and the environment so to speak.
QUINTON: More importantly, Kelly says the project could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from five metric tons of carbon dioxide per person to only one. Kelly hopes pipeline construction will begin this spring. The landfill gas could be keeping students warm at UNH as early as next December.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Quinton.