Energy Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

April 30, 2003

by John Trotti, MSW Management

Reprinted from the March/April 2003 issue of MSW Management magazine.

Just returned from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program conference in Washington, D.C., where I listened with genuine astonishment to presentation after presentation that came to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that the future for landfill gas (LFG) is more than goodit's hot.

Keep in mind that these were presentations to landfill owners, energy developers, equipment manufacturers, financial analysts, and regulators who have grown weary watching various governmental bodies hem and haw over how to deal with political, environmental regulatory, and economic issues that have given industry regulars an ongoing case of heartburn. So I think the largely optimistic tone took many by surprise.

Barely halfway into the first morning's agenda, it became clear monumental change was afoot. Pointing the way to things to come were back-to-back presentations by representatives of DOE who outlined alternative energy programs that not only included LFG but proceeded to label the resource the most favorable from several perspectives, including the environment, economic, and perhaps the most interesting since it occurred to me that it underlay DOE's appearance at the eventLFG's energy contribution to homeland security.

Chris Abbuehl, national program representative of the Biomass and Alternative Methane Fuels Program (BAMF)a subset of DOE's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP)led off by explaining the programs involved and what DOE expects to accomplish. Points I feel significant to LFG-to-energy projects are: (1)�the complementary aspects of DOE and EPA programs, especially in the applicability of LFG to their critical objectives, (2)� the Federal government with its $10 billion per year energy bill is the nation's largest energy customer, and (3)� DOE's Super Energy Performance Contracts (ESPCs) are designed to reduce cost and bring alternative sources to bear on the government's energy needs.

Steve Cooke of DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia, brought the focus home to LFG by presenting NETL's program for identifying potential Federal landfill opportunities throughout the United States using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to pair up candidate landfills with government facilities. Establishing as selection criteria: (1)�size and availability of landfills, (2)�end-use capacity of the Federal facilities, and (3)�the distance separating them, the GIS identified 1,227 candidate pairs that meet the screening criteria.

The basis for NETL's assessment is that the National Energy Policy goals, bolstered by Executive Order 13134, "Developing and Promoting Biobased Products and Bioenergy," seek to stimulate the creation and early adoption of technologies needed to make bioenergy cost-competitive in large markets. DOE is tasked with providing technical assistance as well as helping resource owners obtain private financing and performance contracts through FEMP's BAMF Super ESPC Program.

Even before the implications of the DOE presentation had fully sunk in, representatives of two manufacturing concernsS.C. Johnson and General Motorsmade them even more indelible by telling of their companies' success in bringing in gas from nearby landfills to meet their needs. Allow me to paraphrase the mutual and essential messages they conveyed:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is good not only for the environment but it adds luster to the corporate image as well.

  • Reducing GHG emissions has positive economic value in emissions credits, both in terms of cash and/or as a regulatory relief trading chip.

  • LFG is presently price-competitive with traditional fuel sources in many parts of the country and destined to become ever more so in the future.

  • LFG provides an enterprise the ability to determine and hold stable long-term fuel costs without regard to fluctuations in commercial fuel prices.

  • LFG is a 24-hours-per-day, 7-days-a-week resource.

  • LFG provides security from interruption of operations resulting from disruption to commercial fuel delivery activities.

Notice what's going on here. Of the points listed, only the first two are "iffy" or subject to outside acceptance. The last four advantages are "real" with tangible bottom-line value. What's most apparent to me from this is that on both the Federal and private enterprise fronts, LFG is finally being recognized first and foremost for its economic value rather that as an environmental trading chip. However, I think this is only a part of a larger point that there is real and increasing value in the organic fraction of waste that needs to be studied. What's to prevent us from dedicating portions of the wastestream to meet energy needs upstream of landfills? Why, for instance, doesn't it make sense to site transfer stations or materials recovery facilities in the vicinity of candidate businesses or Federal facilities and dedicate a portion of the biomass to serve their energy needs?

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