The landfill is often seen as the end of the line… the burial ground of our trash. But one company says there’s still something to gain from that buried garbage. It’s planning to build a new plant to retrieve one final product from all of our trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kasler has the story:
The landfill is often seen as the end of the line… the burial ground of our
trash. But one company says there’s still something to gain from that buried
garbage. It’s planning to build a new plant to retrieve one final product from
all of our trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kasler has the
You probably don’t think of landfills as “green.” But Steve Wilburn does.
Wilburn is the president of FirmGreen. He says he knows different ways to
turn byproducts of landfills into useful energy.
First, capture the methane that’s produced when all that garbage stews
underground. Second, use it as fuel to generate electricity. Third, turn it into compressed gas for trucks. And finally, mix
it with soybean oil to make soy diesel.
Steve Wilburn says it’s an ambitious project.
“This is the first of its kind in the world. The Green Energy Center concept is
something I came up with about four years ago, and as we explored for ways to
implement it, we needed a centerpiece, a technology that was missing, and that
was to clean up the landfill gas in a very cost-effective way.”
FirmGreen is building what it calls its Green Energy Center right next to the
landfill in Columbus, Ohio. Mike Long is with the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio – SWACO for short. Long says right
now, there’s no practical use for the methane and carbon dioxide produced by the rotting garbage in the landfill.
“Currently, SWACO’s control technology is to have a flare where we burn off the
gases to keep it from getting up into the atmosphere. But the new technology,
we will take that gas and make it into energy and consumer products rather than
just simply burning it and exhausting it.”
Instead of burning those landfill gases, they’ll be redirected a small
electric generator operated by FirmGreen. The electricity will be sold back to
SWACO to power its main office and its fleet garage. That’ll start in just a
Later, FirmGreen will convert methane into compressed natural gas. That will
be used to fuel SWACO’s vehicles, which could save the waste authority an
estimated 100 thousand dollars a year.
FirmGreen’s President, Steve Wilburn says the final part of the project is the
real profit maker for his company: turning methanol into biodiesel.
“When we create
methanol, we then have the bridge to the hydrogen economy because ethanol is an
excellent hydrogen carrier. It’s also used in the manufacture and production of
biodiesel. Ohio is a large soybean producing state. So we’ll take our green
methanol and we’ll blend that with the soy oil and we’re going to create
When the FirmGreen biodiesel processing facility is up and running, it will
need 69 thousand acres of soybeans to produce 10 million gallons of biodiesel
annually. FirmGreen already has a contract with Mitsubishi Gas Chemical
Company to provide 6 million gallons of biodiesel a year. FirmGreen also hopes
to interest the growing hydrogen fuel cell industry.
“Biofuels” have their critics, who are concerned that it takes as much energy
or more energy to create biofuels than they produce. Mike Long at SWACO says
he’s heard that before, but it doesn’t apply to this project.
energy is already here, and is being flared off right now at our landfill. There’s no recovery of the energy, no beneficial
use. So for those who argue that this process would be a consumer of energy, it’s not a net consumer, and right now, we’re wasting energy.”
Long and Wilburn point to statistics from the U.S. EPA. They says the data show
the Green Energy Center will have the same effect as reducing oil consumption by
more than twenty thousand barrels a year. They say that’s like taking 2,000 cars off the road.
Sam Spofforth is with the Central Ohio Clean Fuels Coalition. He says even
when factoring in the fuel used by trucks transporting the methanol to the
remote biodiesel processing facilities, the project still looks green to him.
“In terms of biodiesel, it’s about three point two energy units out for every one energy
unit in. What is even more exciting about this project – methane
gas is about twenty times as potent as a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So the
fact that they’re using methane that would otherwise be vented into the air
makes the net emissions of those greenhouse gas even more positive.”
The Green Energy Center in Ohio is the first in the nation, but a second one
is planned to be built near Saint Louis, Missouri. With giant landfills venting
off methane in places around the country, if these two make money, it’s a
pretty sure bet others will be built in the near future.
For the GLRC, I’m Karen Kasler.