Part two of our exploration into the energy potential of landfill gas (LFG) moves from the “how” of converting LFG to energy to the “why.” Read on to learn more about the benefits that LFG energy projects can bring to landfills, local communities, and the environment. You can also find out about how waste management professionals and landfill operators can get more information on developing and implementing an LFG energy project at their own facilities.
What are the benefits of using LFG to produce energy?
LFG energy projects—in which LFG is captured from landfills and converted into energy by one of the methods described in the previous post—have become increasingly popular in recent years, and they offer a number of important environmental and economic benefits. They include:
Helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
While carbon dioxide is perhaps the most-discussed greenhouse gas, methane is in fact a much more potent culprit, with a global warming potential that is roughly 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide and an atmospheric life of only 10 years or less. Add to this the fact that municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of America’s human-generated methane emissions (over 133 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were produced by US landfills in 2014 alone), and it seems evident that finding a way to reduce the amount of landfill-generated methane could have a significant impact on mitigating global climate change.
LFG energy projects could provide the answer to the question of how to prevent these harmful methane emissions from escaping into the atmosphere. Estimates indicate that depending on its system design, an LFG energy project can capture anywhere from between 60% and 90% of a landfill’s emitted methane. Then, when the LFG is burned to produce electricity, the damaging methane is transformed into water and is much less potent than carbon dioxide.
Reducing air pollution
Another environmental benefit of LFG energy projects is that they have the potential to reduce air pollution directly and indirectly. A direct reduction of air pollution is achieved through the use of the same technologies and methods that reduce landfill methane emissions. These practices also reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds and other local air pollutants that would otherwise find their way into the air as part of the escaping LFG.
Furthermore, the use of LFG to produce energy can indirectly prevent air pollution by offsetting the effects of using non-renewable resources to produce the same amount of energy. For example, burning coal, oil, or natural gas to produce energy generates pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (a significant component of acid rain), particulate matter (which contributes to respiratory problems), and nitrogen oxides. However, when LFG is used instead, a much lower quantity of these pollutants is generated.
Improving health and safety
Onsite health and safety is an important issue for landfill owners and operators. Even in trace amounts, the hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds present in uncontrolled LFG can pose serious health risks to landfill workers, who are regularly exposed to them over prolonged periods of time. However, when LFG is burned to produce electricity, the vast majority of these compounds are destroyed, thus virtually eliminating their status as health hazards. Similarly, uncontrolled LFG can accumulate in structures on or near landfills and cause explosions. This safety risk is eliminated when LFG is collected and processed for conversion to energy, as the gas is not allowed to build up to the levels at which dangerous explosions can occur.
Boosting the local economy
Creating LFG energy projects can provide important economic benefits to the local communities, where the projects’ host landfills are situated. In the initial phase, jobs are created and contracts are awarded to local engineering, construction, and equipment firms. Sales are also boosted by money spent locally on drilling, piping, construction, and operational equipment and personnel. Once an LFG energy project is operational, local communities can benefit from cost savings by replacing more expensive fossil fuels with LFG energy, as well as from increased revenue resulting from the external sale of LFG.
Reducing environmental compliance costs
According to the provisions of the Clean Air Act, most larger landfills are required by law to collect and combust LFG. While these landfills are not specifically obligated to create LFG energy projects—other compliance options include simply flaring, or burning off, the gas—energy projects offer landfill owners and operators the opportunity to ensure compliance while at the same time utilizing the potential of LFG as a valuable resource.
Where can landfill operators learn more about LFG energy projects?
An initiative of the EPA, the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) is a voluntary program that engages industry professionals, waste officials, landfill owners and operators, utilities, and communities in a collaborative effort to reduce landfill methane emissions and locate other beneficial ways to make use of LFG. LMOP can support interested stakeholders by providing technical assistance and guidance in assessing the economic feasibility of a potential LFG energy project; facilitating partnerships and identifying financing options for LFG energy projects; and fostering a supportive network of peers and renewable energy experts. Organizations interested in joining LMOP can apply through the EPA.