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Trash to Gas: Landfill Energy Projects On The Rise

Posted on January 5, 2010

Hundreds of trash trucks across California are rumbling down city streets using clean fuel made from a dirty source: garbage. The fuel is derived from rotting refuse that San Francisco and Oakland residents and businesses have been discarding in the Altamont landfill since 1980. Since November, the methane gas created from decaying detritus at the 240-acre (96-hectare) landfill has been sucked into tubes and sent into an innovative facility that purifies and transforms it into liquefied natural gas.

In a state that has passed the most stringent greenhouse gas reduction goals in the United States, the climate change benefits of this plant are twofold -- methane from the trash heap is captured before entering the environment and use of the fuel produces less carbon dioxide than conventional gasoline. "We've built the largest landfill-to-LNG plant in the world; this plant produces 13,000 gallons (49,400 liters) a day of LNG," said Jessica Jones, a landfill manager for Houston-based Waste Management. "It will take 30,000 tons a year of CO2 from the environment."

Altamont is one of two California landfills making LNG; the other is a smaller facility about 65 kilometers south of Los Angeles. Other natural gas facilities are being planned by Waste Management at some of the 270 active landfills nationwide, and the number could grow quickly as communities seek to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency counted 517 active landfill energy projects in the nation's approximately 1,800 operational municipal landfills. That was up almost 50% from 2000, and 28% from 2004.

The idea of turning garbage into clean energy is not a new one -- the Altamont site has had a methane-fueled electric power plant since 1989 that can power 8,000 homes a day. Hundreds of other landfills in the U.S. also use methane captured from rotting garbage for electricity projects. In 2005, the last year data was available, landfill methane electricity projects made up 10.8 percent of the country's renewable energy output, not including hydroelectric power, EPA said.

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