Methane is one of the main by-products of landfills. It’s also a
fuel, which can be used to create electricity. In 1978, the federal
government began requiring utilities to buy this methane-generated
power. But as energy prices dropped, methane producers found their
profits disappeared as well. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly reports, they’re looking for new alternatives:
Methane is one of the main by-products of landfills. It’s also a fuel, which can be used to create
electricity. In 1978, the federal government began requiring utilities to buy this
methane-generated power. But as energy prices dropped, methane producers found their profits
disappeared as well. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, they’re looking
for new alternatives:
(sound of blower)
Frank Lavadera stands proudly next to a small, green pipe sticking out of the ground. It’s
attached to a fan, which is sucking methane gas out of this landfill in Saratoga Springs, New
“It pulls the gas from the landfill to this particular point and pushes it across the street to
where the engine system is, to where it’s used.”
(sound of skating)
Where it’s used in the town’s skating rink. The landfill produces enough methane to provide
eighty-five percent of the rink’s electricity. The methane is pumped into a generator. That
produces the power that freezes the ice, keeps the rink lit, and heats the water for the showers.
Lavadera designed the project. He’s an engineer at Cluf, Harbor and Associates in nearby Albany.
He was originally hired to close the city’s landfill, which is filled with horse manure from the
“One of the things we found was that this particular landfill had a tremendous amount of methane
gas, above and beyond what would normally be expected. And as a result, we needed to collect this
methane as opposed to just passively venting gas into the atmosphere. But simultaneously, the city
constructed this ice skating rink, and it was very natural connection that we’d match the two up
together to utilize the gas.”
The city is now saving fifty-thousand dollars a year in utility costs. At one time, they probably
would have sold the electricity to a power company and made a profit. Utilities are required to
buy methane-generated electricity from landfills at the same price it costs the utility to make
it. The problem is, the overall price of producing electricity has dropped drastically. In New
York State, it’s gone from six cents per kilowatt-hour in the 1980’s to about two cents today.
Shelley Cohen is head of the EPA’s methane outreach program.
“Utility prices in many states are still very cheap and they’re not able to offer prices for the
landfill gas that make it economical to develop a project. That being said, the landfill and the
landfill developer generally look for other options for developing gas projects.”
Cohen knows about eighty landfills in the U.S. that have found other ways to recycle their
methane. Many simply use it themselves to heat their buildings and run generators. Others sell it
to neighbors. There are asphalt and paper companies that use methane to run their boilers. And in
Canada, the methane from one landfill heats four greenhouses. Cohen says these projects are making
good use of one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
“The environmental benefits are tremendous. Because you’re capturing the methane from the
landfill. You’re reducing those emissions from the landfill and then you’re somehow utilizing it,
which means you’re also offsetting the need to use other forms of polluting energy, such as coal.
So it has this double environmental benefit.”
But Frank Lavadera says landfills still shy away from these projects. For one, they have to build
a system to convert the methane to electricity. In Saratoga Springs, that cost more than a million
dollars. And two, the farther the methane has to travel, the more expensive it’ll be. So, they
need to have a willing neighbor.
“That’s what made this project work very well, is we had the ice skating rink directly across the
street from the landfill. That probably is what will drive methane gas projects in the future as
time goes on, is matching up landfills with high users that might be close by so they could
effectively utilize the electricity.”
There’s another possibility on the horizon. Environmental groups are pushing for a federal tax
credit to make it easier for landfills to produce electricity. John Skinner is president of the
Solid Waste Association of North America.
“Our proposal is for a federal tax credit for landfills that use the methane gas as a fuel and
that will adjust the economics so that it’s economically feasible to do so. There’s probably
another 250 to 300 that would come on-line that won’t come on-line otherwise.”
Skinner says a previous tax credit helped create more than two-hundred new projects. But it
expired two years ago. The current proposal is expected to come to a vote in the House sometime
(sound of skating)
Meanwhile, the more creative landfill owners are forging ahead. They have to find a way to get rid
of their methane. But rather than seeing it as a waste product, they view it as a resource. Now,
they just have to find someone who’s willing to use it.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Saratoga Springs, New York.