This story tracks American garbage. Trucks cart waste from households to landfills where the garbage decomposes and produces landfill gas. That gas, half methane, half carbon dioxide with trace amounts of hazardous pollutants, produces smog and bad odors and is potentially explosive. In 1994 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started the Landfill Methane Outreach Program to encourage communities to use landfill gas as an energy resource. VOA's Rosanne Skirble visited one of those projects in rural North Carolina.
For 30 years, trucks came rolling up this winding road into the hills of western North Carolina to dump trash. By 1994 the Mitchell County and Yancey landfill was full, but all was not fine. Even capped landfills like this one leak gas that harms the environment. Among the most damaging is methane, a flammable pollutant and byproduct of decomposing garbage. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change.
However, its impact on the environment can be greatly reduced if it is burned, which is what the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council decided to do in a creative way. Today, methane directly from the landfill powers artists' studios and greenhouses. Terry Woodruff is the project manager for the EnergyXchange.
"The landfill is right here," he announced. "The green area... you can see the extraction wells on it. Each one of those wells is tied to a main pipeline that comes to this blower flare station and then what you see off the top of this flare is actually methane, landfill gas that is burning off that we are not utilizing. At night that is a strong blue flame, but today you can barely see it."
That's because potters and glassblowers are using it to run their kilns and furnaces. These crafts are especially heavy energy users. EnergyXchange artists pay low rent for a three-year studio space contract, which includes business classes and a free supply of methane.
JOHN GECI: "I am a glassblower. We have furnaces that hold the molten glass, and they have to stay up at temperature of 2100 degrees F [1100 degrees C]. They have to stay at that temperature 24-hours a day. So it is a lot of cubic feet, a lot of energy that we use here."
JASON BOHNERT: "There are four clay artists in the studio here. I was in the area in 2001 when they were just building this place and heard about it from ground zero. It appealed to me because it was beautiful space to work in and my environmental ethics. It was the only recycled energy kiln in the country that I knew of. That was neat to be able to merge both of those interests into studio space."
JOHN HAGY: "All three years have been fantastic, but the first year every day that I walked up, I said that I was the luckiest man in the world to be able to do this. It's free fuel, plus you get the space. It's a huge space. Usually you find a clay studio in a basement somewhere and to have all of this natural light and be on the top of a mountain is a dream come true really."
KELLY O'BRIANT: "I've been here for one year. At times it has been overwhelming because it is the first year I have worked as a potter full time and have had no other income and so sometimes it feels a little daunting, but it has been a really good experience."
SKIRBLE: "And you are?"
LIZ SPARKS: "My name is Liz Sparks. I've been a potter in the area for a while. I make all functional pots, mostly stoneware and porcelain. This is porcelain right here."
SKIRBLE: "What did you know about methane gas before you came here?"
LIZ SPARKS: "I didn't really know anything about it. I hadn't really thought about it. Actually that's another thing this place has given me, a way to start thinking about alternative fuel sources because we are going to run out of oil someday. I probably [in the future] can not use methane, but I can start thinking about other alternatives like waste oil and wood and maybe combining those."
The craft studios share the hilltop retreat with four greenhouses managed by Tamara McNaughton. She works with a crew of community college and high school students to propagate native plants and staff the hydroponic aquaculture house. Landfill gas provides heat for these buildings.
TAMARA MCNAUGHTON: "We are in the hydroponics greenhouse. We grow tilapia in these fishponds, and we grow lettuce mix out in the grow beds here. Water goes into the sump box and then there is another pump like these in the fish tanks in that box, which then sends that water overhead and back to the fish tanks. So, what we have got here is a symbiotic relationship. The fish are fertilizing the plants and the plants are filtering the water for the fish. We are on an every week cycle with the lettuce mix. So we are pulling 10-20 pounds (4-9 kg) of salad mix out of here every week, selling it locally to restaurants."
SKIRBLE: "And the fish?"
TAMARA MCNAUGHTON: "We sell the fish directly from the tanks. I say it is the freshest tilapia you can get in the mountains!"
The success of EnergyXchange has already encouraged other communities in the region to vent landfill gas to power a furniture making factory, a regional firefighting center and a county health department. However, project manager Terry Woodruff knows the EnergyXchange landfill has only a 20-year life span and has already begun to look for a clean alternative when the methane runs out.