Jim Voss hopes his company will make a fortune out of garbage -- specifically the methane gas produced when tons of trash decay in landfills across the nation. That methane -- 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide -- has to go somewhere: federal rules requires large landfills to either burn it or pipe it away to be processed.
RALEIGH, N.C. Jim Voss hopes his company will make a fortune out of garbage -- specifically the methane gas produced when tons of trash decay in landfills across the nation.
That methane -- 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide -- has to go somewhere: federal rules requires large landfills to either burn it or pipe it away to be processed.
Voss and others are convinced there's money to be made in the process by selling the stinky garbage gases to those hunting a steady, consistently priced source of energy.
"It's a shame to waste all the BTUs that are there if you have an end user that's reasonably close," said Voss, president of Arizona-based Methane Credit LLC, which this fall plans to start turning landfill methane into enough electricity to power 500 homes a year in rural Wayne County, 50 miles east of Raleigh.
It's not cheap enough yet for most electric utilities to replace coal with methane at their power plants, but the gas is priced attractively enough for many companies to pipe it directly from landfills to power their facilities.
"The development of these things is becoming increasingly favorable," Voss said. "We can come in with these indigenous supply lines and provide more or less a fixed price."
The market for methane has developed as international demand has caused the price of natural gas to skyrocket. In April, the commercial price of natural gas was 15 percent higher than a year earlier and 56 percent higher than three years ago.
According to state and federal environmental officials, about 380 landfills nationwide and at least 19 in North Carolina are turning turbines for electricity or selling methane directly for industrial uses. Such pipelines have carried the greenhouse gas to some companies for a decade or more.
In eastern North Carolina's Wilson County, Voss' company is negotiating with a Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. tire manufacturing plant to deliver gas generated by 2 million tons of buried garbage from a landfill that closed in 1998 after 24 years.
Now, instead of having to burn off the methane, Wilson County hopes to collect a percentage of the profits.
Ajinomoto USA, a manufacturer of pharmaceutical amino acids in Raleigh, has had a long and satisfying experience with landfill gas. The company pipes in methane from a Wake County dump about a mile away to fuel two boilers that generate steam for heat processes, saving about half the price of natural gas.
"It's a stable price," said Ajinomoto facilities manager Gary Faw. "It's not dependent on what goes on overseas."
In one of the boldest projects, Matthews-based Enerdyne Power Systems Inc. built a 23-mile pipeline from one of the East Coast's largest landfills in Waverly, Va., to a Honeywell Inc. plant in Hopewell, Va., that makes a component of nylon fiber.
The feat was honored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year. While replacing about 15 percent of the plant's gas needs, the project will save the equivalent of 370,000 barrels of oil per year, enough power to heat and cool 22,000 homes.
The business has shown enough promise that animal manure on farms, which also generates methane, is also being tested for its power potential. Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork producer, is close to generating enough electricity to power 70 homes from hogs on one of its Duplin County livestock operations.
There are limits. Because most landfills are in rural areas located away from industrial users, pumping methane to a direct user is limited by the cost of building pipelines, said Ed Mussler, an engineer with the North Carolina Division of Waste Management.
There's also a key regulatory hurdle in North Carolina. Delivering methane to more than a single site means a distributor is treated as a utility, requiring intense state regulation.
"Finding a user that can take all of your gas can be very difficult," Mussler said.
Source: Associated Press