I never thought that my search for green energy initiatives in New Hampshire would lead me to a landfill. But, there I was, staring out at more than 9 million tons of garbage at the Turnkey Waste Management Facility in Rochester, N.H., producing a figurative gold mine of usable energy: methane.
The University of New Hampshire has become the first university in the nation to capture the methane produced by landfills, which is called landfill gas, to power its facilities. Since May 2009, a landfill-gas-to-energy-project named EcoLine has provided 85 percent of the University of New Hampshire's heating and electrical needs.
The way that EcoLine works is actually pretty simple. Landfill gas, which is about 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide and water vapor, is produced when anaerobic bacteria decompose organic waste in the landfill. As this decomposition process continues over time, landfill gas begins to build up producing the garbage smell we are all familiar with, which is actually trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and not the odorless methane gas.
Normally the landfill will collect and burn off this excess gas, which can become explosive if it is not managed, in a process called flaring. However, EcoLine uses a series of pipe lines and gas wells to collect the landfill gas and transport it to a processing facility where it is purified to remove a majority of the carbon dioxide, water vapor, hydrogen sulfide and other trace elements. After processing, the gas is now about 98 percent methane, and methane is a combustible fuel that can be used to power generators, run boilers and even work in modified combustion engines. This valuable energy source produced from decomposing garbage then travels down 12 miles of pipeline to the University of New Hampshire's cogeneration plant to produce electricity and heat for the 5 million square-foot campus.
The project is certainly a creative and green idea that benefits both the campus and the environment. The methane produced from EcoLine has replaced natural gas to power the university, which has stabilized energy costs and will potentially pay for itself in the next ten years.
More importantly the project has a direct benefit for the environment. Landfill gas contains harmful greenhouse gases that would have otherwise just escaped into the atmosphere if they were not captured by the EcoLine system. The fuel that EcoLine produces will also reduce UNH's overall carbon footprint by 30 percent in the next five years by replacing natural gas and trapping the greenhouse gases the landfill would have produced.
The idea seems to be catching on, and the New York Times even wrote an article
about the use of landfill gas in New York and New Jersey in 2008. So far the system seems to be working very well for the University of New Hampshire (full disclosure: I am a UNH student living in an apartment connected to the University's grid) and as I write this on my laptop, powered by trash, I have no complaints and can guarantee you it doesn't smell like 9 million tons of rotting garbage here.