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Getting in on the gas act

Earlier this month, General Motors (GM) pledged to generate 100% of its global energy requirements from renewable sources by 2050. Apple, which already uses renewable energy to power 93% of its worldwide operations, also announced that it had signed up to the RE100 initiative, a grouping of corporations committed to 100% independence from fossil fuels.

Gas energy generation from Landfill sites

Both GM and Apple have included Waste-to-Energy (W2E) in their renewable mix. GM has used landfill gas to generate electricity at plants in Indiana and Michigan since 2013, saving several million dollars and almost 90,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.[1] Apple has recently added landfill gas treatment to its solar activity.[2]

The logic is clear. Landfill is a dirty business and in Britain, where housing shortages are driving certain groups to advocate building on green belt, there are few who would argue that filling precious land with rubbish is a good idea. Much is made of the fact that landfill releases methane, a far more damaging gas than CO2 (although it hangs around in the atmosphere for a much shorter period) and leaches toxic liquid. In the UK, there is now a compelling economic argument against it too – and that is the landfill tax (currently £84.40 per tonne) that has been rising steadily since the introduction of the Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC), item 16 of which intimates that measures should be taken to reduce the production of methane gas from landfill.

Accordingly, since 2000, the amount of waste sent to landfill has dropped by 70% [3] to around 26%. About half of this is construction waste and 14% is from households.[4] This has caused operators such as the UK subsidiary of French group Suez – 80% of whose profits were from landfill as recently as 2008 – to diversify or disappear. Suez has moved into recycling, mechanical biological treatment and refuse-derived fuel and now has eight energy-from-waste plants. CEO, David Palmer-Jones, explains:

There are a lot of valuable materials and potential base-load energy that energy-from-waste plants can push out into the system and nicely complement renewable power, which is naturally sporadic and reliant on the wind and the sun. Our power is ticking along 24 hours a day, seven days a week.[5]

David Palmer-Jones, CEO, Suez

Ener-G, one of the UK’s leading landfill gas companies, advocates energy recovery from landfill methane as a means of generating renewable energy whilst reducing emissions. Their system carefully extracts gas from landfill and guides it, using a flare system, via a series of wells, to a processing point. Here, it can be converted to CO2 by flaring or treated to drive a generator.

There is some sustainable satisfaction to be gained from meeting regulatory requirements, reducing emissions and producing greener energy. If all these boxes can be ticked and a profit turned at the same time, it is no wonder that Mr Palmer-Jones does not talk about ‘waste’, preferring the term ‘valuable materials’ instead.

[1] General Motors.  GM facility ranks among nation’s top Green Power users. 27 April 2015. http://media.gm.com

[2] Catawba County Economic Development Corporation. Catawba County approves lease for Apple’s renewable energy center. 10 June 2016. http://www.catawbaedc.org

[3] HMRC.  Landfill tax: increase in rates. 16 March 2016. www.gov.uk

[4] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. UK Statistics on Waste.  25 August 2016 www.gov.uk

[5] The Telegraph.  My old man’s an energy-harvesting operative.  28 November 2015. www.telegraph.co.uk