June 23, 2009

Methane, the other bad gas

Methane is right up there with carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It traps heat in our atmospere 20 times more than carbon dioxide. It's a great fuel because it's clean-burning--as opposed to coal.

It's actually colorless and odorless, in spite of the rear end of cows you're probably picturing right now.
Actually it's the other end of cows that produce it. Cattle belch about 16 percent of the world's methane (according to Wikipedia). So give Bessy a break from the flatulence jokes.

There are natural sources of methane too. See this EPA chart. Methane is also produced in considerable quantities from the decaying organic wastes in landfills. Look for those telltale vents where it can be burned for energy. Get used to the "waste to energy" term since it will be used more in the future. Garbage is a renewable resource!

Desiree Parker, Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily's self-proclaimed ECOfreak (love that name!), recently blogged that there are now about 480 landfill gas energy projects in the U.S., and 27 of them operate here in Virginia. See what she wrote about local stuff that's happening:

Jim Hill, James City’s solid waste superintendent, proposed converting some of the methane in the old county landfill on Jolly Pond Road (which has been closed since 1993) into something useful. “I got a chance to see the Miramar Landfill over in San Diego,” Hill said. “It was really interesting. Their [landfill-to-energy program] provides about a third of the city’s electricity.” So, the county went ahead and did a study to see if there was enough methane in that old landfill to do any good in the relatively small county site – and there is. “We found some vents that have enough methane to heat the school bus garage for 40 or 50 years,” says Hill. “It’ll save the county a lot of money, probably a few thousand a year, I’d guess.”

Hill says he’d really like the county to go ahead with the project. “We don’t have to, of course, but I’d like to see the gas reused, and not just vented into the air,” says Hill. In fact, when I called him Hill was sitting at his desk working on writing a grant to pick up some stimulus money for this project through the state’s Department of Energy. It’s due Thursday, he says. He has no idea what the project might cost, but getting a grant would certainly help convince county administrators to give the go ahead, I’ll bet.

Waste Management, a trash disposal company that serves a lot of localities around us. Hill mentioned they have some landfill gas energy projects going on
now, too. Spokeswoman Lisa Kardell of Waste Management shared some of her
company’s projects with me, which made me even happier. WM has four landfill gas energy projects in Virginia, and will open two more soon. Their sites use the
methane to fuel onsite engines or turbines that generate power (this is about
how most of these kinds of projects work). Their Gloucester facility, slated to
open in July, will be a 6.4 megawatt facility that produces enough electricity
to power about 6,500 homes.

I also asked her about what it costs to build this kind of facility, and she said it’s between $8 and $10 million. That sounds like a lot, but not if you think of how much you’d save in energy costs over the decades – and if you think about how much we’d help out with global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, if you like this idea of Jim Hill’s, when it comes up at the James City board of supervisors meeting, why don’t you let them know you support it? Maybe in that little way, you can make a difference.

Website of the week: Check out the EPA’s
methane outreach homepage. This is where I looked up a lot of this information, but there’s still lots more stuff I didn’t add. Very neat.