California garbage trucks fueled by ... garbage
Methane gas produced in California landfills fuels garbage and recycling trucks, reducing the state's carbon emissions.
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"Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide," Tom Frankiewicz, program manager for EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program in Washington, says in an e-mail. "Methane is also the main component of natural gas, so by capturing and using methane as an energy source you get an even bigger bang for the buck."Skip to next paragraph
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At the Altamont landfill, seagulls hover over the sprawling complex, set among the rolling green hills and wind farms of the Altamont pass about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of San Francisco. Dotted throughout the facility are more than 100 wells with black tubes that vacuum up methane from the heap.
The LNG is then pumped into the garbage and recycling trucks at a company fueling station in Oakland, while vehicles elsewhere in California get their gas at specially equipped stations.
The idea of turning garbage into clean energy is not a new one — the Altamont site has had a methane-fueled electric power plant since 1989 that can power 8,000 homes a day. Hundreds of other landfills in the U.S. also use methane captured from rotting garbage for electricity projects.
In 2005, the last year data was available, landfill methane electricity projects made up 10.8 percent of the country's renewable energy output, not including hydroelectric power, EPA says.
Given its impact on greenhouse gases, four state environmental agencies contributed grants to help build the $15.5 million Altamont plant. Mike Beckman of Linde Group North America, the company that built and runs the natural gas plant, says the Altamont plant should continue producing fuel for 20 years or more.
That makes the nascent Altamont plant potentially profitable, as the gas is sold to Waste Management and other customers.
But to many who may want to use the technology, the cost of purifying the methane into usable liquefied natural gas can be a daunting barrier. The $15.5 million it took to build Altamont's LNG facility is far more than it costs to build a small electrical plant.
"There is growing interest, but because removing impurities from the methane is currently quite expensive, right now it's only profitable at larger landfills where you have enough landfill gas," Mr. Frankiewicz says. "With today's economics, these projects only happen at the biggest sites in the U.S.; the thought is that as the technology becomes cheaper, that will change."
Associated Press writer Terence Chea contributed to this report.