One Man's Trash is Another's Electricity
by K.J. Hascall
Daily Inter Lake, June 28, 2009
Flathead County Landfill opens first gas-generating project in the state
On Friday, the turbine at the Landfill Gas-to-Energy Facility began to turn, collecting 370 cubic feet a minute of methane gas and converting it into electricity, enough to power 900 homes.
"These landfill gas generating projects are nothing new across the U.S., but this is the first in Montana," said Ken Sugden, Flathead Electric Cooperative's general manager.
Electricity output is expected to eventually increase by 60 percent.
"As more garbage decomposes and more garbage gets put [in the landfill], more methane gets created," Sugden said.
The Flathead County Landfill previously was collecting methane produced by decomposing garbage to keep it from permeating the groundwater. Then the gas was burned off, along with carbon dioxide.
The impetus for the methane-to-electricity project came with a government mandate for power providers to start meeting part of their electricity demand from renewable sources - 5 percent this year, 10 percent by 2014 and 15 percent from 2015 on.
Member-owned cooperatives are exempt from those requirements, but Flathead Electric Cooperative has adopted policies to meet the intent of the act.
The electric generating plant is a renewable energy source that also keeps methane from being burned off into the atmosphere.
The plant has three main components:
Eventually, the landfill will add wells and perhaps even another engine. The project's 20-year contract could be extended to 35 years as production capabilities progress.
"As they open up new parts of the landfill, we'll put in wells," Sugden said. "We'll be ahead of the game. It will be less expensive than drilling. Future wells will be horizontal pipes laid in layers in the garbage."
The energy facility, a joint project between the landfill and Flathead Electric, cost about $3.5 million to construct. It was financed by $3 million in interest-free loans to Flathead Electric in the form of Clean Renewable Energy Bonds. The electricity from this plant is expected to cost between five and six cents per kilowatt hour to produce. Flathead Electric currently purchases electricity from Bonneville Power Administration at a rate of three cents per kilowatt hour.
The gas-to-energy project is significant not only for environmental reasons, but also because from October 2011 to September 2012, Bonneville Power Administration will measure the valley's power load - Dave Prunty, Flathead County Public Works director, estimates the load at about 150 megawatts - and then Bonneville will supply only to that measurement even as the load on the grid increases in the future. The electricity produced by the landfill generator will help mitigate the load and will not be included in Bonneville's power estimates.
"We're talking about a byproduct of all the garbage we're producing and turning it into a resource," Prunty said. "We're destructing [methane] and turning it into energy."
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