Trash to energy

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The idea of getting energy from waste has been around at least 30 years, when I covered the periphery of a bid for a trash-burning plant in northeastern Ohio. But it was, at best, an immature plan at that time, and still today is a poor solution for resource efficiency.

These days, it’s more likely that energy from trash will come from the methane produced in the trash piles, instead of from incineration. Yesterday, I heard a very enthusiastic presentation by Don Augenstein of the Institute of Environmental Management, who described his team’s approach for anaerobic composting in waste dumps.

I can’t believe that I was excited by such talk, and yet, I was. The first grabber he tossed out was that capturing LFG (landfill gas) could reduce the greenhouse gas effect by about 5 percent. This is because although everyone talks about CO2 emissions, and CO2 emissions make up the vast bulk of GHG volume, methane is actually far more destructive in the atmosphere.

The process he described has been in full-scale demonstration at a landfill in Yolo Country, Calif., since 2000 is is “ready to go commercially and globally.” He said a number of competing companies are offering technologies, “but we were there first. I have a paper from 1976 that lays it out,” Augenstein said. He said the giant Waste Management is copying his group’s technology. (I am not, of course, in a position to verify the claim, at least not this morning.)

Augenstein said one value of his technology is that it is heavily monitored — they have more than 200 sensors for documentation. His process is fairly simple: The trash is piled and capped rapidly to prevent methane escape, and then moisture, which could be gray (treated, nonpotable) water, is introduced to promotes methane production.

He said they were surprised to learn that, compared to a control pile of trash, volume in the demonstration project fell by 20-25 percent as solids converted into gas. That means the process creates value by allowing the same land to be reused for more trash disposal over time. Other values result from the power produced by the methane, which can be burned for electricity at the petroleum equivalent of $6 to $30 a barrel, and the reduction of greenhouse gas, which will have monetary value when a cap and trade system is implemented.

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