BY: SWIKAR OLI
Methane has always had a bad rap. Often associated with trash or manure, and dreaded by environmentalists for trapping 25 times more heat per pound in the atmosphere than CO2, it could use a second introduction. With the help of some enterprising landfill owners, the gas now has the chance to align its foul name with something cleaner.
Landfills, by their nature, are always leaking methane. It rises out of solid waste through bacterial activity. As Pacific Standard reports, methane leak can have disastrous consequences. “In 1980, methane from a landfill in Port Washington, New York, leaked underground and caused explosions in a nearby neighborhood. Twenty years later, a dump with accumulated gas caused a blast that damaged over 100 buildings in Mexico.”
Methane leaks can leak underground and cause explosions.
In order to prevent any more of these disasters and curb greenhouse gas emissions, landfill owners in the U.S. are required to seal their methane, which isn’t cheap. But with government help and technological advances, waste companies are being given the chance to turn product into profit.
The EPA has been encouraging landfills to convert their trapped methane into an energy source with generous tax incentives. The process to convert methane into a source of energy is expensive, but the EPA has made it a worthwhile endeavor. Trash begins to produce methane after a couple of weeks. The methane is collected by a series of wells, which are drilled into the garbage and connected to a vacuum. The vacuum extracts the gas and it is taken to a plant to be purified. The methane can be burned to heat water, letting the steam work big turbines to generate electricity. Alternatively, the purified methane can be used as natural gas. Six thousand landfills in the U.S. currently make use of their methane.
Landfills can make use of methane by purchasing equipment to convert it into energy.
Structures to create usable methane require millions. As Pacific Standard explains, “A plant that includes an engine capable of generating the necessary three megawatts of electricity costs more than $5 million. Other equipment includes a gas compression and treatment system with an engine and generator, which can cost close to $5 million as well.” That’s where the government subsidies are crucial. The cost—much more than companies can earn back by selling natural gas—are benefitted by the end from federal assistance that makes a gallon of the stuff cheaper than gasoline or diesel by “about $1 to $1.50.”
Structures used to create usable methane require millions, but government subsidies can help to reduce the cost.
The incentives don’t end there, “under the federal Renewable Fuels Standards program, refineries are now required to buy gas from landfill owners and blend it into transportation fuel. That is expected to increase the use of renewable gas to 36 billion gallons by 2022.”
As long as newer wells are able to keep their methane leaks at 1 per cent, methane looks to outgrow coal while being cleaner and more viable. Burned methane is much less harmful to the environment than being released since it breaks down into simpler substances like CO2 and water. While cleaner energy like solar and wind is being used more widely, proper methane use could provide multiple benefits for the earth.