© Alexander | stock.adobe.com

California’s state government has sued the Trump administration 46 times, according to a mid-February summary by The Hill, and it is not surprising that many of those lawsuits pertain to objections to environmental regulation changes made over the last two years. Among them is a suit challenging delays to landfill methane gas monitoring regulations announced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In May 2017, the EPA announced a 90-day administrative stay to its own August 2016 New Source Performance Standards and Emissions Guidelines for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.

That 90-day period has come and gone, with one troubled EPA administrator having resigned, a government shutdown occurring and midterm elections bringing changes to regulatory oversight thereafter.

Attorney Jessica J.O. King of Richmond, Virginia-based environmental law firm Williams Mullen, summarized EPA landfill methane gas monitoring efforts in May 2018 this way: “EPA stated it will continue to work with states on a path forward but will not demand state implementation plans. Furthermore, EPA is not actively imposing new compliance deadlines for the rule and [its] guidelines.”

Added King, “Therefore, state regulators and industry groups remain confused as to: 1) whether the 1996 or 2016 methane emissions rules and guidelines apply; 2) whether there will be another administrative stay; and 3) when, and if, EPA will publish a revision to the 2016 rule and guidelines.”

With the regulatory status of landfill gas emission restrictions and monitoring in flux, the market has been left to sort out whether the time is right for landfill owners and managers to invest in landfill-gas-to-energy systems that (most often) receive EPA approval no matter which party is in power.

An option to consider

In the wider landscape of energy sources and needs, the power that can be harnessed from landfill methane gas is relatively tiny. Efforts to convert landfill gas to marketable power can sometimes be stymied by this very circumstance, depending on landfill location and nearby energy market needs and receptiveness.

It is also one of the reasons why government incentives or encouragement, whether at the federal or state level, can stimulate the market. Another incentive can arrive in the form of “energy security” partnerships with landfills and energy-hungry customers. These partnerships often include places like hospitals, computer server farms and military bases—organizations that cannot afford energy disruptions.

The location of one landfill near a U.S. Marine Corps base provides the right set of circumstances for one recent partnership, although this effort was also assisted by the state of California’s regulatory support.

Part of a $5 million California Energy Commission (CEC) Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) grant was used for a $3.9 million project that will add energy storage to a microgrid that serves the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar in San Diego.

The MCAS Miramar microgrid was originally created through an effort by Andover, Massachusetts-based Schneider Electric and Overland Park, Kansas-based Black & Veatch in July 2016. The recently funded expansion of the project will allow the facility to integrate landfill gas energy storage for what Schneider Electric calls “additional resilience and sustainability.”

The microgrid, which is scheduled to be completed in 2019, will be powered by 3.2 megawatts of converted landfill methane gas, 1.3 megawatts of solar photovoltaic supply and 6.45 megawatts of diesel and natural gas generation.

Harnessing the landfill gas in the San Diego region isn’t new, according to White Plains, New York-based Fortistar LLC, which said in late 2018 that it was celebrating “a successful and productive 20 year public–private partnership in providing clean, sustainable and reliable power from its Miramar landfill gas projects.”

“Communities across the U.S. increasingly are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet their sustainability goals, [and] landfill gas-to-energy projects are one of the most cost-effective ways by which to achieve this,” said Mark Comora, the president of Fortistar, when announcing the 20-year anniversary.

Fortistar’s Miramar landfill gas projects provide approximately 2.67 billion standard cubic feet of captured methane gas for local electricity generation each year. The electricity generated from the gas is equivalent to that needed to power more than 113,000 homes each year, the firm says. “The facility has prevented thousands of metric tons of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, from being released into the atmosphere each year,” adds Fortistar.

Installations with staying power, such as this one, may provide at least as much guidance to landfill owners about the merits of landfill gas-to-energy systems as do the shifting regulations in Washington D.C.

The neighbors love it

Landfills are among the waste properties that attract “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attention from neighboring property owners who commonly take issue with the smells, truck traffic, threats to groundwater or methane gas emissions tied to MSW landfills.

In addition to federal regulations, maintaining cordial relations with neighbors and local governments has provided an additional impetus to landfill-gas-to-energy efforts: Such systems can be perceived as responsible, forward-thinking and compliant with state and local regulations if properly positioned.

Canada’s regulatory climate can be starkly different from that in the U.S., but the long-time landfill gas effort in place at the Green Lane Landfill in Toronto provides an example of the benefits posed by such systems.

Grace Maione of Toronto’s Solid Waste Management Services Division told Waste Today in late 2018 that “refuse-related odors have been reduced” since the Green Lane system was installed and after an odor abatement plan the division commissioned earlier this decade. (More on the Green Lane installation can be found in the article “Clearing the air,” in the November/December 2018 issue of Waste Today.)

Installations in San Diego and Toronto may both benefit from access to a large, hungry adjacent energy consumption market and the desire to allay NIMBY concerns. But rural America is not necessarily waiting for regulatory clarity to find feasible landfill-gas-to-energy solutions, either.

"Communities across the U.S. increasingly are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet their sustainability goals, [and] landfill gas-to-energy projects are one of the most cost-effective ways by which to achieve this.” -Mark Comora, president of Fortistar

In the fourth quarter of 2018, global energy technology provider Siemens of Erlangen, Germany, announced the commissioning of two SGE-56HM gas engines that will provide electrical power for a landfill gas-to-energy project at the Milner Butte Landfill in Burley, Idaho. The project was undertaken for the Southern Idaho Solid Waste (SISW) agency.

According to Siemens, the gas capture engines will allow the landfill to convert 1,000 tons of landfill waste into energy each day, and officials with the SISW expect that amount to increase. Siemens says it worked with SISW engineers and Hastings, Nebraska-based Industrial-Irrigation Services to develop a method to capture the methane for use as a fuel gas to produce electricity.

“We saw this gas and realized we were just wasting it by burning it for no productive use,” remarked Nate Francisco, SISW’s environmental manager, when the engines were commissioned last October.

Once the landfill gas is converted to electricity, it is transported to utility firm Idaho Power through a 20-year purchase agreement. At startup, the two engines were generating enough power for approximately 2,000 homes, according to Siemens.

“We expect these engines to remain in operation for 20 to 30 years,” says Josh Bartlome, executive director at SISW. “They’re big engines built for endurance.”

SISW estimates in the next two decades, the facility will generate about $36 million in revenue, netting about a third of that after installation and operations costs. If the revenue forecast stands, it provides one more case study showing why landfill owners—whether in a large metro area or not—may not be paying particular attention to EPA back-and-forth rules ushered in by party politics.

Landfill-gas-to-energy technology providers like Siemens certainly hope this is the case. “This plant assists the local community with its power needs while being environmentally responsible,” states Chris Nagle, North American regional director for the Siemens Gas Engines business unit. “The Milner Butte Landfill project represents the future of distributed power.”

The author is a senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.