Landfill Methane Outreach Program, U.S. Environmental Protection

Turning a Liability into an Asset: A Landfill Gas-to-Energy Project Development Handbook


Courtesy of Landfill Methane Outreach Program, U.S. Environmental Protection

Each person in the United States generates about 4.5 pounds of solid waste per day almost one ton per year. Most of this waste is deposited in municipal solid waste landfills. As this landfilled waste decomposes (a process that may take 30 years or more), it produces landfill gas. Landfill gas contributes to the formation of smog and poses an explosion hazard if uncontrolled. Furthermore, because landfill gas is about 50 percent methane, it is both a potent greenhouse gas and a valuable source of energy.

Substantial opportunities exist across the country to harness this energy resource and turn what would otherwise be a liability into an asset. The purpose of this handbook is to help landfill owners, operators, and others considering landfill gas projects determine whether landfill gas energy recovery is likely to succeed at a particular landfill, and to clarify the steps involved in developing a successful project.

The handbook is organized according to the process of landfill gas project development, as the flowchart on this page illustrates.
It contains two major sections: Part I Preliminary Assessment of Project Options provides the landfill owner/operator with basic screening criteria to assess the viability of a landfill energy recovery project and make a preliminary economic comparison of the primary energy recovery options; and Part II Detailed Assessment of Project Options outlines and discusses the major steps involved in development of a landfill gas energy recovery project, from estimating expenses and revenues to constructing and operating the project. The flowchart on this page can be found at the front of each chapter, with the current section and chapter highlighted. Additional information is contained in Appendices A through J of the handbook.

The Benefits of Landfill Gas Energy Recovery

Landfill gas energy recovery offers significant environmental, economic, and energy benefits. These benefits are enjoyed by many, including the landfill owner/operator, the project developer, the energy product purchaser and consumer, and the community living near the landfill.

Environmental Benefits

Landfill gas contains volatile organic compounds, which are major contributors to ground-level ozone and which include air toxins. When little is done to control them, these pollutants are continuously released to the atmosphere as waste decomposes. When landfill gas is collected and burned in an energy recovery system, these harmful pollutants are destroyed.

Regulations already require many landfills to collect their landfill gas emissions, and new federal air regulations will soon require additional control. Once the gas is collected, landfill owner/operators have two choices: (1) flare the gas; or (2) produce energy for sale or on-site use. Both options address local air quality and safety concerns, but only energy recovery capitalizes on the energy value of landfill gas, while displacing the use of fossil fuels. Offsetting coal and oil use further reduces emissions of a number of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, a major contributor to acid rain, as well as the production of ash and scrubber sludge from utilities. Furthermore, landfill gas collection systems operated for energy recovery are often more carefully managed than those designed to flare the gas. This means that more of the gas generated in the landfill may be collected and combusted, with fewer emissions to the atmosphere.

Landfill gas energy recovery also has the potential to significantly reduce the risk of global climate change. Landfill gas is the single largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States, contributing almost 40 percent of these emissions each year. Reducing methane emissions is critical in the fight against global climate change because each ton of methane emitted into the atmosphere has as much global warming impact as 21 tons of carbon dioxide over a 100 year time period. In addition, methane cycles through the atmosphere about 20 times more quickly than carbon dioxide, which means that stopping methane emissions today can make quick progress toward slowing global climate change.

Economic Benefits

New federal regulations, promulgated in March 1996, require several hundred landfills across the country to collect and combust their landfill gas emissions. Once installation and operation of a collection system is a required cost of doing business, incurring the extra cost of installing an energy recovery system becomes a more attractive investment. Sale or use of landfill gas will often lower the overall cost of compliance and, when site-specific conditions are favorable, the landfill may realize a profit.

More widespread use of landfill gas as an energy resource will also create jobs related to the design, operation, and manufacture of energy recovery systems and lead to advancements in US environmental technology. Local communities will also benefit, in terms of both jobs and revenues, through the development of local energy resources at area landfills.

Energy Benefits

Landfill gas is a local, renewable energy resource. Because landfill gas is generated continuously, it provides a reliable fuel for a range of energy applications, including power generation and direct use. Electric utilities that participate in landfill gas-to-energy projects can benefit by enhancing customer relations, broadening their resource base, and gaining valuable experience in renewable energy development. Landfill gas power projects provide important demand side management benefits, as transmission losses from the point of generation to the point of consumption are negligible. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners recognized the value of landfill gas as an energy resource when it adopted a resolution in March 1994 'urging regulators to focus their regulatory attention on the landfill gas resources in their States to determine the role that energy from landfill gas can play as an energy resource for utilities and their customers.' Industrial facilities, universities, hospitals, and other energy users can benefit by tapping into landfill gas, a low-cost, local fuel source.

The EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program

The EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program encourages landfill owner/operators to develop landfill gas energy recovery projects wherever it makes economic sense to do so. EPA estimates that over 700 landfills across the United States could install economically viable landfill gas energy recovery systems, yet only about 140 energy recovery facilities are in place. Through the Outreach Program, EPA is working with municipal solid waste landfill owners and operators, states, utilities, industry and other federal agencies to lower the barriers to economic landfill gas energy recovery.

This handbook is one component of the Landfill Methane Outreach strategy for overcoming information barriers to development of energy recovery projects. By providing information that can be used to assess project feasibility and outlining the project development process to landfill owner/operators and others considering energy recovery projects, this handbook can help spur development of successful projects. For more information on the Outreach Program, contact EPA's Hotline at 1-888-STAR-YES.

How to Use This Handbook

If you are a landfill owner/operator ! or anyone considering a landfill gas-to-energy project ! you can use this handbook to conduct a preliminary assessment of the potential for your landfill to support an energy recovery project. First, review Section 2.1 with the parameters of your landfill in mind. If your landfill meets the basic screening criteria (or has site-specific factors that make it a good candidate for energy recovery), use the information provided in Section 2.2 to develop a rough estimate of available landfill gas. Next, examine the economic comparison in Chapter 3, referring to the landfill gas estimate closest to that for your landfill, and determine which energy recovery option may be most cost-effective. Finally, carefully review Part II of the handbook (Chapters 4 to 10) to gain an understanding of the steps involved in developing an energy recovery project at your landfill. You may want to consult some of the references listed in Appendix H for more detailed information on the gas being generated at your landfill and the collection and energy recovery system you are considering.

This handbook is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to the landfill gas development process, nor is it a technical guide to project design. Once you have decided to pursue a gas-to-energy project, you may want to consult experts with experience in project development as well as technical resources regarding construction, equipment, operation, and other aspects of project design. The Landfill Methane Outreach Program can provide you with a list of landfill gas-to- energy project developers, engineers, equipment manufacturers, financiers, and end-users, and Appendix G contains a listing of organizations that can refer you to additional experts in project design, development, and operation.

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