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Video: Powering Up with Landfill Gas

Excessive trash can be a problem at college campuses, fouling up dorm hallways and campus walkways. But an energy team at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) has found a way to turn that problem into a solution by using trash for heat and electricity.

Starting this fall, UNH will be getting 85% of its heat and electricity from landfill gas provided by a nearby waste disposal facility. The project, called ECOline, is yet another example of a college developing an innovative renewable energy project in order to reduce operating costs and prove its “green” credentials to students.

In the middle of the UNH campus sits an old brick building that once housed coal and oil-fired central boilers. In the 1990's, the boilers were converted to run on natural gas. Finally in 2004, when the college realized it needed to upgrade the boilers again, the idea of a co-generation plant came up.

“Rather than spend money to upgrade those old technologies, the school decided to spend the money on a co-gen plant,” says Paul Chamberlin, assistant vice president of energy and campus development at UNH. “We figured, why spend the money on this old technology? Let's move into the 21st century.”

Then the school decided to take the upgrade one step further. Instead of using natural gas to run the turbine and heat-recovery boiler, they thought about using landfill gas as the primary fuel. UNH approached Waste Management, the owner and operator of a local landfill, to see if such a project would be possible. It turned out that Waste Management had a lot of extra landfill gas that was just being flared off.

“They needed to get rid of it and we had the need to use it,” says Chamberlin. “It was the perfect opportunity. We couldn't pass it up.”

A deal was soon struck between Waste Management, UNH and contractor SCS Energy, to construct a 12-mile pipeline from a gas-processing facility at the Turnkey Landfill to the school's new co-generation plant. UNH will use landfill gas as the primary fuel and natural gas as a backup, if needed.

Now, instead of wasting the landfill gas, Waste Management is using it to diversify revenue streams from its facility. And more importantly for UNH, it has a stable supply of renewable landfill gas that will heat and power the campus. When school is out of session, UNH will sell excess electricity generated from the landfill gas to the local utility. Because the electricity is considered renewable in New Hampshire, the school will also be able to sell the renewable energy certificates.

At first, convincing the board of trustees to spend $49 million on the project was a difficult task, says Chamberlin. But once members learned about the multiple payback options and the benefits of diversifying fuel options, there was consensus that the project should move forward.

“When everything was laid out and we explained how it was going to work and how we were going to get the return on our investment, we got the support,” says Chamberlin. “Now we're the first school to develop a project like this on such a scale.”

While this project is a unique “first” for a college, landfill-gas-to-energy is not new for Waste Management. The company, which is the largest operator of landfills in the U.S., has over 100 such facilities in operation. It also plans to develop up to 60 similar plants with a total electricity generating capacity of 700 megawatts by 2013.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 2,700 MW of total electricity capacity and 900 million standard cubic feet of gas per day buried beneath the country's landfills. That represents only a small piece of the energy picture. But with innovative partnerships like the one between Waste Management and UNH, that small piece could play a very important role.

For and in-depth look at the inner workings of the plant, as well as the technical apsects to working with landfill gas, play the video below.

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I am a reporter with ClimateProgress.org, a blog published by the Center for American Progress. I am former editor and producer for RenewableEnergyWorld.com, where I contributed stories and hosted the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast. Keep in to...

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