Clean-power projects turn landfills'
methane into electricity
Aug 18, 2010 - Tiffany Hsu - LA
Times - McClatchy
Landfills, with the tendency to belch
noxious greenhouse gases, have long gotten a bad
rap from environmentalists.
But now several clean-power technology
companies believe waste can be a source of environmentally
FlexEnergy, an Irvine company, showed off a pilot
generator Thursday that converts previously unusable
methane gas seeping from a Riverside County landfill
into 100 kilowatts of electricity. That could be
used to help run the sprawling landfill operations
or light up more than 100 homes.
The company envisions its generators being installed
at many of the country's 2,300 currently operating
or recently closed landfills. Trash in municipal
solid-waste landfills produced 22% of all methane
emissions nationwide in 2008, second only to the
amount produced by animals as they digest food, according
to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Riverside County's Lamb Canyon Landfill could produce
up to 1.5 megawatts -- enough to power 1,500 homes
-- if more of FlexEnergy's units are installed, the
The project is the latest in a move to use landfills
to produce electricity. At more than 500 landfills
in the U.S. -- 74 in California -- methane already
is being converted into electrical power.
But the Flex Powerstation technology is the first
to use a low-emission process to deal with landfill
methane, which can hover in the atmosphere for years,
according to the company. Many dump operators deal
with the gas by burning it up using flares, a technique
that often releases more pollutants such as nitrous
oxide and carbon monoxide.
Most waste-to-energy technologies can function only
when gas with high methane content is available.
But the methane levels degrade as landfills age,
making those generators less efficient and shorter-lived
than the Flex Powerstation, the company said. Even
using gas with a small percentage of methane, the
FlexEnergy option is still able to produce power.
On top of government stimulus funding, the company
has picked up $13 million in venture capital investment
over the 10 years it has been working on the technology.
It attracted $7 million of that in the last two years,
from RNS Capital and Costa Mesa-based Sail Venture
Next up for the company: working with the Department
of Defense. FlexEnergy has identified hundreds of
sites run by the U.S. Army that could use generators
and is installing a system at Ft. Benning in Georgia
in February, said Chief Executive Joe Perry.
The company's standard 250-kilowatt unit will sell
for about $800,000, he said. Southern California
offers a landfill marketplace worth $300 million,
but Perry is also eyeing wastewater treatment plants,
oil drilling sites and coal mines as potential customers.
"Methane is in multiple markets and multiple
industries that are pollution sources that we can
turn into energy sources," he said.
Other companies are also using landfills for eco-friendly
BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc., also of Irvine, is
slogging through the permitting process for a refinery
in Lancaster that would convert organic waste into
3.7 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol each year
to serve as an alternative to gasoline.
The plant would use grass trimmings, food scraps
and paper that would otherwise be chucked into the
landfill next door. BlueFire already has a $40-million
grant from the Department of Energy to build another
factory in Southern California.
And at the Toland Road Landfill northeast of Camarillo,
the Ventura Regional Sanitation District is also
turning piles of decomposing garbage into a source
Starting in August 2009, nine microturbines that
run on methane and other landfill gases have been
generating 2.25 megawatts, which is enough to power
more than 2,000 homes. Southern California Edison
gets about 1.5 megawatts from the project. The remainder
of the energy runs the rest of the landfill's operations,
including machinery that superheats waste to destroy
But some projects are encountering resistance.
After residents raised worries about air quality
and health issues, the Los Angeles County Sanitation
Districts pared back plans at the Palos Verdes landfill
to upgrade an older, steam-powered generator with
newer methane converters.
But the project is now two years behind schedule,
and with dropping methane levels, it may have become
too expensive to proceed, said supervising engineer
Mark McDannel. He said he might have to scrap half
or all of the proposal by the end of the year.