Originally created 09/21/03

State co-ops to use landfills to help produce electricity



Jefferson Energy Cooperative's new venture shows there's a silver lining to just about anything - even the stinky smells coming from a landfill.

The same methane gas behind the foul odor oozing out of decaying banana peels and rotting trash will early next month be turned into electricity for some homes in the Augusta area.

Jefferson Energy and 15 other energy cooperatives across the state are teaming up to extract the gas out of three landfills and convert the renewable resource into residential electricity, a project dubbed "Green Power" for its environmentally friendly focus.

To generate electricity, energy providers generally burn oil and coal, producing pollutants in the process.

"It's our way of providing an avenue to offer our members electricity and at the same time clean up the environment," said William Irwin, a spokesman for Jefferson Energy of Wrens, Ga. The cooperative provides electricity to 31,000 members across 11 mostly rural counties in the metro area.

Although this marks the first time in Georgia that power companies will sell electricity directly to the consumer in this way, South Carolina energy provider Santee Cooper has done so in Myrtle Beach for close to three years.

Local industries also have tapped methane gas as a private energy source. Unimin Corp. in Richmond County extracts and pipes methane gas to its facility 3 miles away, where it's burned and used to dry the clay it mines. Owning a steady supply of gas means the company doesn't have to buy natural gas on the open market, which is often prone to significant price swings.

The Environmental Protection Agency says combined there are 340 such consumer and commercial projects under way, and the potential for about 500 more. The initiatives began in the late 1970s during the Carter administration and the skyrocketing oil prices.

Because energy cooperatives are nonprofit organizations, any money made after covering overhead costs will go to the research and development of other alternative fuel sources, such as wind and solar power, said Dan Hart, head of the Green Power EMC group guiding the project.

Outside of Atlanta in Norcross, a landfill project already converts its methane into electricity and sells it to energy provider Oglethorpe Power Co. The difference there, though, is that the extraction process isn't up to snuff with EPA standards and can't be marketed as green power.

When Jefferson Energy and others start selling their green power, the electricity will be sold at a premium to members who sign up for the program. Jefferson Energy will charge $4 for each 150-kilowatt-hour block - a kilowatt-hour will run a 100 watt bulb for 10 hours.

Georgia Power is set to roll out its own green power program before the end of the year and says it plans to charge $5.50 for each 100-kilowatt-hour for customers who ask for it.

Mr. Hart said the cooperatives have contracted to buy 13 megawatts of energy over the next 15 years from Houston-based Energy Development Inc., a company that extracts methane and turns it into electricity for projects across the country.

So far 9 megawatts of potential energy have been identified, which by Green Power EMC's estimate can supply 5,584 homes with electricity for a year.

The EPA said that landfills are the largest source of methane emissions, accounting for a third of these emissions that eat into the Earth's protective Ozone layer. From that, Green Power EMC said when its project is fully in swing it will have the equivalent of taking 114,000 cars off the road.

The cooperatives will first start tapping gas from a landfill in Taylor County, between Macon and Columbus. A few weeks later another site will become operational in Fayette County, just south of Atlanta. The third landfill in Gwinnett County will come on-line by April.

The prospect of using more landfills has the effect of turning what was thought of as a liability into an asset, said Chris Voell, the program manager for the EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program in Washington.

"More manufacturers may look at a community as attractive because it has a landfill and can use the gas," he said. "It has got to be burned off either way. This way it takes it out of the atmosphere and can be put to good use."

Landfill Criteria

A landfill must be a certain size to be eligible for a potential methane gas extraction project. It must:

1. Have at least a million tons of waste

2. Be receiving waste, or closed for not more than a few years

3. Have a depth of 40 feet or more

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency

Factoids

1. More than 80 utilities in the United States now offer green power resource programs.

2. Green Power EMC's plan will have the same environment benefit as reducing coal use by 312,000 tons.

3. The 16-member group of energy cooperatives represent more than 1.5 million Georgians.

SOURCE: Green Power EMC

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com