In 2012, the tiny northern New England state of Vermont will lose two-thirds of its electric power contracts. Its hydropower contract is up for renewal, and the nuclear reactor that now provides much of the state's energy may simply be too old to continue operation. So Vermont is turning to renewable resources, and as Erika Celeste reports from Morrisville, Vermont, trash may be one of its greatest resources.
The mountains of trash hidden behind the high dirt walls of the Moretown Landfill hold the key to a great treasure for Morrisville, Vermont. That's because the dirty, slightly pungent mess will soon be producing enough electricity to power 2,600 homes.
The smell comes from the methane gas produced by the decaying garbage. The site currently captures the methane and burns it as a way to control the odor. But as the state began to look at energy alternatives, officials realized the burning methane was a resource literally going to waste, and there was enough of it to use it more profitably.
As landfill manager Tom Badowski explains, "Up until very recently, the economics weren't there for us to generate electricity. You need a certain quantity of gas, and you need a certain quality of gas."
Generating Power by Pumping Gases
When refuse comes into the landfill, large machines tear open the bags and compress the trash into the smallest, tightest mass possible. Then water and oxygen begin to mingle with the garbage, which creates the perfect environment for the bacteria that help in the decomposition process.
The released methane is collected through a series of pipes that run under the mountain of garbage in a grid system, sort of like a series of wells.
"Instead of pumping water out of it," Badowski says, "we pump gases."
He compares the process to using a giant vacuum cleaner to suck gas from the wells.
"It brings that gas to a central location, and that's the keys to the kingdom - having that gas in one location where there's enough volume to run these power plants," he says.
Hundreds of Potential Sites Across the Country
It takes about six months for a landfill to start generating a usable amount of methane and a couple of years before enough has built up to power the electricity generators.
Similar methane to energy projects are popular in Europe, where the gas powers cars as well as homes. Great Britain fuels a quarter of all its households with landfill gases. Germany produces enough excess methane to provide 70 percent of the global methane market.
There are currently 456 landfills across the United States that turn methane into electricity, with another 530 potential sites in various stages of development.
In a recent Vermont government study, citizens overwhelmingly asked for more renewable energy. Robert Dostos, who worked on the study when he was a state representative, says lawmakers responded.
"The legislature has put measures in place telling utilities we have to derive more energy from renewable resources, from carbon-free, locally produced resources," Dostos says.
Cost-Effective Energy Solution
While such measures may cost money up front, Dostos - now a spokesman for an energy company - believes they will pay off in the end. He points to the volatile cost of fossil fuels.
"We as a state, and I think as a nation, need to become much more energy independent," he says. "It means producing more of our own electricity, deriving and growing more of our energy in this state and this country. So we have more control over that volatility. So in the long term, I think it is going to be much more economical."
Back at the Moretown Landfill, construction on the new garbage to electricity generators is almost complete. Tom Badowski says they plan to flip the switch on December 1.
"We're pretty excited about it," he admits, "and as we continued to receive waste on the property, we anticipate adding additional engines as we go. In another five years, I think we'll have enough gas to put on another, a third engine here."
The project will not only send a much-needed source of power to Vermont's energy grid, it will provide a steady and reliable source of energy for the foreseeable future.