Landfill Gas Has Big Potential in the Circular Economy
As momentum for the circular economy grows, some companies are finding ways to build a simple circle into a complex web that deploys more than one sustainability strategy. That is the case with the fiber and paper company Sustana, which has combined its focus on recycled paper products with the use of recycled biogas from a nearby municipal landfill.
Employee engagement is key to the circular economy
Municipal landfills provide ideal environments for microorganisms that digest food waste and other organic material. As they eat, they emit copious amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which is also the key component of natural gas.
Under conventional practice, landfill gas is flared on site to produce carbon dioxide, which is a less potent greenhouse gas than methane. A more sustainable approach is to capture and deploy landfill gas to replace fossil energy sources.
As always, the main barrier is cost. Landfills are often located far from large industrial or commercial facilities, which adds to transportation costs. Depending on the use of the gas, it may also require additional processing and treatment.
Sustana’s experience in supplying biogas for its Rolland paper mill in Canada illustrates how landfill gas opportunities can materialize for decarbonization as well as cut costs and ensure a steady, reliable source of energy.
In Rolland’s case, employee engagement was the essential ingredient in introducing this process to the paper mill. With the Rolland mill located conveniently near a municipal landfill, in 2003 an employee in the purchasing department suggested studying the use of landfill gas instead of fossil energy for the mill’s heat-related processes.
Gas from the landfill was first introduced to the Rolland facility in 2004. An initial adjustment period worked out the kinks, and by 2006 the system was fully operational. Fifteen years later, the landfill system is still running smoothly, and it currently supplies 93 percent of the thermal energy needs of the Rolland mill. What’s more is that leveraging this renewable energy reduces the mill’s carbon emissions by 70,000 tons a year.
Finding the right biogas solution
The conversion to landfill gas was almost as simple as it sounds, with a number of factors enabling the Rolland paper mill to take full advantage of its proximity to a municipal landfill.
The need for large amounts of process heat was one important factor that made landfill gas a reliable, economical resource for the Rolland mill — a scenario that may look different at facilities with less need for process heat and more need for electricity.
Fitting landfill gas into a company’s overall energy purchasing profile is a related consideration. Rolland’s electricity supply was already decarbonized through its location on a hydropower grid. That enabled the Rolland mill to focus on process heat for lowering its greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cutting costs.
Rolland’s experience also suggests that companies looking into landfill gas might be able to partner with nearby facilities, enabling these systems to scale up to an economical level.
Landfill gas and the human factor
Pierre-Michel Raymond, Rolland’s mechanical engineer and energy supervisor, also emphasized the role of employee engagement in the ongoing success of the landfill gas system.
Municipal landfills are, in a sense, living creatures influenced by biological processes. Their gas output varies along with seasonal changes, day-night cycles and temperature fluctuations. At Rolland, monthly meetings with the landfill operator were established from the outset and continue to the present time, providing staff at the mill with regular opportunities to touch base with their counterparts at the landfill and ensure the system keeps running smoothly.
The landfill gas system has also fostered additional opportunities for employee engagement at the mill. Over the years, staff at Rolland has been involved in maximizing output from the landfill and improving energy efficiency within the mill, as well as providing opportunities for facility managers outside the company to visit and learn how the system works.
“Fifteen years later, the landfill gas system continues to work well,” Raymond told TriplePundit. “It was an easy transition, and the project is still alive because of the participation of each party. We still have monthly discussion about how the system is going.. We consistently work to refine the process and yield.”
Raising interest in landfill gas
When the Rolland mill first converted, few facilities were seeking landfill gas as an alternative to fossil energy. Now the interest is rising, partly thanks to outreach by Rolland and other early adopters.
That’s a good thing. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that municipal solid waste landfills account for more than 15 percent of human-related methane emissions, making them the third-largest source of methane from human activity.
The agency points out that landfill gas is now displacing fossil energy in a wide variety of use cases across numerous industrial sectors, from automaking to pharmaceuticals and consumer products.
In the U.S., about 70 percent of the landfill gas captured today goes to generate electricity in various kinds of turbines and engines, as well as fuel cells. It can also be used in boilers to produce steam, as is the case at the Rolland mill. Dryers, kilns and greenhouses are examples of other thermal applications.
Another source for renewable natural gas
When further refined, landfill gas can also be upcycled to produce renewable natural gas. A project of that type is currently under way in South Carolina, where the firm Energy Power Systems is working on a system that will process landfill gas and inject it into a local natural gas system.
As one indication that interest in landfill gas is accelerating, earlier this year a Pennsylvania company called Archaea Energy reformed through a special acquisition merger and announced plans to build onto its existing landfill and agricultural gas business. One key area of focus will be upscaling its roster of landfill gas-to-electricity projects into renewable natural gas production, possibly with an eye on recent activity including a new commitment by UPS to increase its use of compressed renewable natural gas from landfills in its fleet.
In California, SoCalGas has been instrumental in pushing that market, including gas from wastewater treatment plants and livestock operations as well as landfills. Industry stakeholders estimate that activity in that area could generate $14.3 billion in economic growth for the state and create more than 130,000 jobs in related fields including engineering and operations as well as maintenance and manufacturing.
A new report from the firm Allied Market Research also suggests that demand for landfill gas will rise alongside the increase in public awareness of climate issues. AMR notes that North America had the highest market share of landfill gas globally in 2020, and is “expected to dominate the market by 2030.”
“This lead is possible due to the rise in health and environmental awareness among the people,” alongside technology improvements that have expanded the opportunities for using landfill gas, the AMR researchers noted.
When the Rolland mill first converted to landfill gas, skeptics were everywhere, but persistence paid off. By supplementing activity in other renewable energy sectors, landfill gas can play a significant role in the circular economy and in accelerating decarbonization in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.
This article series is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Sustana