Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on the benefits of capturing and harnessing methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills. Landfills are the third largest source of anthropogenic methane gas produced in the United States; between 1990 and 2011, landfill gas (LFG) composed 17.7 percent of all U.S. methane emissions. Because of the high methane content in LFG, the captured gas can be refined and used to produce heat, electricity, and/or vehicle fuels. More than 590 landfill projects in 47 states capture enough LFG to power more than one million homes and heat 740,000. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are more than 500 additional landfills that are candidates for LFG energy projects. The briefing discussed the economic, health, and climate benefits of tapping the energy potential of the nation’s landfills.

Currently, all U.S. landfills larger than 2.5 million metric tons (or cubic meters) of waste are required to combust landfill gas. While many landfills continue to flare LFG, local governments and private waste managers are increasingly opting to convert LFG to electricity, thermal energy, and vehicle fuels. EPA assists landfill owners and operators to develop and implement LFG projects through its voluntary Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP).

Miramar Landfill, San Diego’s only active landfill, is an LMOP partner. The 42 million ton facility generates 9.6 MW of power for the city. An additional 3.2 MW of capacity was installed in 2012 for use at the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, meeting up to 50 percent of the base’s electricity needs while improving its energy security. The project also provides a nine percent return on investment over 15 years.

  • Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA), Chair of the Climate Task Force for the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, opened the briefing by voicing his support for landfill capture projects, stating that converting landfill methane to energy is something that the United States can do now without having to significantly change the country’s energy mix.
  • Dr. V. Ramanathan, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at the University of California San Diego, gave an overview of the impacts of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) and how reducing SLCP emissions provides perhaps the best opportunity for fast-action climate mitigation. He emphasized the fact that the planet is likely to warm by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 without more action to curb emissions of climate pollutants.
  • Dr. Ramanathan also stated that stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions below 440 parts per million may not be enough to adequately mitigate climate change. Reductions of SLCPs, such as methane and black carbon, must also play a big role.
  • Dr. Ramanathan ended his presentation by highlighting the substantial health benefits, agricultural gains, and increased water security that would result from a reduction in SLCPs.
  • Tom Frankiewicz, Program Manager for the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), discussed the highly complex engineering that goes into managing landfills and landfill energy projects, stating, “They’re not just dumps.”
  • According to Mr. Frankiewicz:
    • Landfill gas (LFG) is roughly 50 percent carbon dioxide and 50 percent methane
    • In 2010, landfills were the third largest human-caused source of methane in the United States.
  • There are 605 operational landfill gas projects in 48 states, annually supplying 15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 100 billion cubic feet of landfill gas to direct-use applications. This is enough energy to power the equivalent of 1,100,000 homes and heat the equivalent of more than 725,000 homes.
  • Mr. Frankiewicz said there are 445 additional landfills that would be good candidates for developing their own energy projects. LMOP maintains an open database of all existing and candidate sites to assist groups looking to develop projects.
  • Daniel LeFevers, Vice President of Federal Public Affairs at Waste Management, discussed Waste Management’s landfill capture practices.
  • Mr. LeFevers noted that landfills are highly regulated and that environmentally sound practices are Waste Management’s first priority.
  • According to EPA’s 2012 National GHG Inventory, municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills have decreased their methane emissions by over 27 percent since 1990. To provide context regarding the size of this resource, in 2012, landfill capture produced more energy than the entire solar industry in the United States. Waste Management’s landfill gas-to-energy plants provide enough energy to power the equivalent of half a million homes.
  • According to Mr. LeFevers, challenges to landfill gas-to-energy projects include:
    • Low natural gas prices, which lowers revenue from LFG direct-use projects.
    • Uncertainty regarding whether biomass tax credits will continue under comprehensive tax reform. Utility companies concerned about this uncertainty and natural gas prices are increasingly less willing to sign long-term contracts for renewable bioenergy projects.