Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pull my finger...

The idea of harnessing methane from the county landfill has been batted around for several years, but it wasn't until Chris Merdon proposed using it to fuel county facilities and vehicles during his campaign that the idea reached a wider auidience.

On paper, capturing methane – a powerful greenhouse gas, though one with a relatively short atmospheric residence time – sounds like a good idea. After all, it's a naturally-occuring byproduct of our rotting waste that we can convert into energy (the county currently burns it off, releasing carbon dioxide, a larger threat to the atmosphere).

But what about in the real – that is, non-paper – world, where we have to consider whether it's actually worth it?

Today's Examiner, er, examines this issue, which came up during a recent meeting involving County Executive Ken Ulman and a local group, Transportation Advocates.

"The question is if there are cost savings," County Executive Ken Ulman said this week at a Transportation Advocates meeting.

The possibility of converting methane gas, a landfill waste byproduct, into fuel for the county's bus fleet was raised at the forum.

During the campaign, County Executive candidate Chris Merdon proposed using the methane gas for heat and electricity.

Ulman said he had asked the Department of Public Works to look into harnessing the methane gas to power the nearby public safety academy.

Howard would still need backup power and have to build the infrastructure to support the conversion, Ulman said. Because the Alpha Ridge landfill is small, it may not be producing enough methane gas to make it a worthwhile investment.
Meanwhile, from yesterday's Sun we get this:
Ulman said he would like to do that but has been advised by public works officials that not enough gases are produced at the old New Cut Landfill or at Alpha Ridge to make fuel conversion practical.
(I'm not sure why there's a discrepancy in reporting between the two papers, but that's beside the point.)

David Keelan is disappointed by Ulman's seeming unwillingness to aggressively entertain this idea, suggesting that the county executive is making assertions that run counter to "EPA studies." Although he doesn't include them on his blog, Keelan provided links to some EPA documents on the Howard County Citizens Association email group.

The links, however, do not lead to studies showing that Alpha Ridge is a really a viable source of energy, but rather to a site for the 7th annual conference of the Environmental Protection Agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program, an event that included a presentation by Evelyn Tomlin of the Howard County Environmental Services Department.

Tomlin's presentation is more marketing piece for the businesses attending the conference than study demonstrating that methane extraction is completely feasible in Howard County. Indeed, of the eight slides, only two address potential "recovery" and none address whether the landfill's emmissions are significant enough to yield returns.

Although Alpha Ridge is listed by EPA as a "candidate" site for methane recovery, the only necessary qualification for inclusion as such appears to be existance as a landfill. But with the data available (links to an Excel spreadsheet from EPA's site) we can compare Alpha Ridge to other landfills in the state that are producing methane for energy and get a rough idea of whether it should really be considered a candidate.

First, below is a graph from Tomlin's presentation showing recovery potential over time. Note that Alpha Ridge now operates mainly as a waste transfer station -- that is, it buries only a "small portion of Howard County trash."

As you can see above, the recovery potential is projected to steadily decline, and in 2007 is likely yielding only 500 standard cubic feet per minute (scfm). After converting this number to millions of standard cubic feet per day (mmscfd), we can see how Howard's potential flow stacks up to that of four Maryland energy producing landfills (there are two other such sites listed in the EPA database but neither has data on methane flow).

Alpha Ridge generates significantly less methane each day than the others, and this discrepency will only grow as its emissions diminish over time.

Now, this analysis is not meant to imply that capturing methane from our landfill is a foolish or wasteful endeavor, as it would generate additional benefits besides energy production -- namely, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

I think it does show, however, that Howard County is not the optimal site for this, but a cost-benefit analysis would be necessary to gain a complete understanding of the issue. (And because I'm a tree hugger and wanna-be economist, I would include environmental benefits as a line item in any feasibilty calculations.)

Certainly, Ulman shouldn't hastily write-off this idea because it started as a campaign pledge from another candidate, but I'd also urge caution to others when claiming that EPA attests to Alpha Ridge's viability. If anything, I would point to the lack of a corporate partner as an argument to the contrary.

Now, if we believe that there are larger benefits to methane capture and choose to make it a priority, we could send our trash to landfills where it exists. Our current disposal site is King George County Landfill in Virginia, and, no, it doesn't practice methane capture. Actually, if this story from The Nation is to be believed, it appears our dump is on the leading edge of any increasingly environmentally destructive industry.

Seems to me that if we want to do what's right for the environment and our budget, shipping our trash to a "greener" landfill is probably our best option.


Anonymous said...

What a trashy article.

Yep, bioreactors really shouldn't have the life-synonymous term bio anywhere near them. Maybe trash-to-gas-to-cash volcano would be more fitting?

We should revisit "Pay as You Throw", charging each property according to how much they throw away. The current system, charging each property $125/year winds up subsidizing those who are gluttonous consumers and generators of trash while penalizing those who frugally recycle, compost, and use many other means to keep their trash generation to a minimum.

Stop the SuperSizeMe approach to trash generation, make people pay for how much they choose to damage the environment, and things will get better very quickly.

Perhaps, too, consumer products manufacturers should be taxed for every ounce of packaging that is not returned to the manufacturer for reuse.

Anonymous said...

Maybe segmenting collection of disposable diapers and doggy doody would allow more efficient and, therefore, economically viable reclamation of methane. Yet, there's a lot of petroleum ingredients in diapers (plastic liner, plastic absorbent material) that shouldn't be considered biodegradable. Why aren't there bioplastic corn-cellulose-based diapers instead?

Anonymous said...

Maybe segmenting collection of disposable diapers and doggy doody would allow more efficient and, therefore, economically viable reclamation of methane. Yet, there's a lot of petroleum ingredients in diapers (plastic liner, plastic absorbent material) that shouldn't be considered biodegradable. Why aren't there bioplastic corn-cellulose-based diapers instead?

David W. Keelan said...

Not that we are far apart on this issue, but I feel complelled to provide more details in order to make my point clearer. You did this to me on tax cuts too. The tax discussion was good discussion. This one should be too.

For starters I have written about this before.

Below is an excerpt.

Capture methane gas produced by Howard County landfills to convert into electricity. I think this is brilliant. The EPA has identified the Alpha Ridge landfill as a possible site for such a purpose. There are a number of successful projects around the country. Merdon sites three such projects in Prince George’s County. You can see them here.

Prince George’s produces enough electricity to provide all the electrical needs for the correctional facility, NASA, and generate over $40,000 per month in sale of excess production to the public electrical grid.

Hayduke went into more detail than I provided on the HCCA website. The links I provided were high level overviews of the potential such a project has at Alpha Ridge landfill. They were by no means conclusive. They suggest further review is in order.

Knowing that Ulman has many competing priorities I am not about to run him down for passing on methane to electricity. However, I would like him to discuss this further with other experts.

The EPA lists a number of candidate landfill sites in the State of Maryland for treatment of methane gas. Ian says that the only necessary qualificaiton for inclusion as a candidate site is the presence of a landfill. Howard County has 2 landfills and only Alpha Ridge is on the EPA list. Alpha Ridge is almost 1/2 the size of Brown Station in Prince George County which has been wildly successful in this effort. In the entire State only 9 landfills make the list. I think the EPA did more due diligence than Ian gives them credit for.

Granted the methane production is declining at Alpha Ridge and he rightly points out that a cost benefit anaylsis would be the only means of truly knowing the realistic opportunities at Alpha Ridge. Look, Prince George’s saves a lot of money ($1.2M per year) and generates revenue ($480K per year). Do we have the kind of potential? Probably not. That is all I am asking for the County to do on this. I am asking for a third opinion.

I don’t know enough about the future plans for Alpha Ridge, or another future landfill in Howard County, and I did not know that we ship trash to King George. I wonder, are we producing more trash than Alpha can handle? That could be the reason it will be closing soon - according to the EPA it will close in 2008. That could also be the reason our mmscfd are low in comparison - we don’t feed it enough trash. It could be that the mmscfd are so low after 2007 because the formula used suggests we won’t be adding trash after 2008. Can anyone verify that and tell us what we will do with our trash then? Do we have plans to build a new landfill?

A cost benefit analysis would include the cost to ship our trash else where, revenue generated by selling the electricity to BGE, or using it ourselves, construction of generators and a pipeline and operational costs, planting wells (although we do this anyway for burn off).

Finally, keep in mind that Howard County doesn’t have to do this itself. There are private enterprises that will come in and look at the opportunity/potential. If potential exists and it is worth the investment they will proceed and pay the County for the use of the landfill - NASA does this in Prince George County.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:51, excellent. The consequences for gluttony have unjustly included those who are more frugal, careful, and wise.

FreeMarket said...

I am somewhat confused by the graph. What do the three dots on the graph mean, the ones that supposedly indicate the level of “actual recovery”? I assume that those do NOT mean that a system is already in place that has achieved that rate of flow of methane from the landfill? Is there any information on the “existing and planned system” that is graphed? Does anyone know why the rates of flow have risen sharply and are projected to fall so sharply?

Hayduke said...

As best as I can tell, the "actual" recovery is methane flow from the existing wells (and burned off in the flare?), which were put in place in 1999. There is currently no system for collecting this methane for any other purpose than burning it off. That the wells have only been around since 1999 probably explains the sharp rise, while the sharp fall can attributed to the fact that most of the existing waste in the landfill is decomposed and very littl new waste is being added.

FreeMarket said...

I guess what needs to be done is to determine how many kilowatts of power can be produced with this declining stream of methane. With that, a dollar value of this methane stream can be derived. That discounted dollar stream can be compared to the costs of the facility needed to actually convert the methane to electricity to determine if the project is economically viable. It looks like the methane stream may drop off to quickly to get any project off the ground. However, maybe a few hundred cubic feet of methane per minute is still enough to make electricity production worthwhile. One question- does the conversion of methane to electricity result in the production of greenhouse gases? I.e., is the methane burned to produce electricity?

David W. Keelan said...

Yes, the methane is used in modifide gas turbines. While this may not appeal to some the alternative is to burn it off in the atmosphere as we do today or buy electricity off the grid.

The EPA web site has great information if you want those kinds of details. I would pay particular attention to Prince George County. They are great innovators with this technology.

Anonymous said...

I hate the title of this blog post. It stinks.

Hayduke said...

If you only knew...

Ed Walter said...

Methane is also produced in quantity at the Howard County sewage treatment plant. Methane can be used as fuel for vehicles which are easily converted for same. The methane would have to be dried and compressed which is a lot less expensive than generating electricy.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia's article on methane includes such info as:
- methane burns produce CO2 & water
- 60% more methane comes from landfills than waste treatment plants
- methane has 23 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide over the 100 years following releasing a ton of each into the air
- methane has a large 10 year effect while CO2 has small 100 year effect (meaning if we want to buy time to get a handle on global warming, converting methane emissions to CO2 could buy us some time)
- we currently put 20 Teragrams/year more methane into the air than is taken out through natural means (meaning the atmosphere's concentration of methane is going up, up, up)
- reducing our total methane emissions by about 6% would get us to break even (we could do that by cutting landfill emissions by 50%)
- 1/3 of manmade methane emissions comes from livestock (thankfully, cow beano may be just around the corner)

Anonymous said...

Manmade? Cowmade.

Anonymous said...

Livestock are certainly attributable to man. Besides, do you think cows would be the size they are and have the emissions they do if it weren't for our animal husbandry practices that promote breeding larger and larger animals to achieve higher production/profits?

These practices have resulted in a very guided accelerated evolution in a manner that may have fit the producers' profit goals, but have these other undesirable effects that are displaced onto the community as a whole.

Also, what these animals are fed isn't chosen to minimize methane output, it's chosen to maximize growth rates and, to a different extent, to determine the quality of the meat.

We've even engineered 70 pound turkeys, too. Heaven help us when they're the size of cows.

FreeMarket said...

Right on, anon 3:10.

Eldersburg1976 said...

Great post!

David W. Keelan said...

GE just announced they are getting into the business of reclaiming methane from landfills. Hmmmm... Something about the future economics given that they believe teh feds will be limiting carbon emissions. As a result the economics on these types of projects change overnight.

I will post something on this.

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