How is renewable energy generated from landfills?

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When you drive by a landfill, have you ever looked at it as a potential source of renewable energy? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably a resounding, “No,” but for people like Kevin Dobson, the Vice President of DTE Biomass Energy, those landfills represent an opportunity to convert harmful landfill gas into a product that can generate electricity, heat homes, or even be used to power buses and cars.

In this podcast, we had the chance to talk with him about how landfill gas is generated, what can be done with it, and why it’s an important part of meeting renewable energy standards for many companies and states around the country.

Podcast transcript:

David Lingholm:  [00:02] Welcome to the “Empowering Michigan” podcast. I’m your hose, Dave Lingholm.

[00:04] When you drive by a landfill, have you ever looked at it as a potential source of renewable energy? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably a resounding, “No,” but for people like Kevin Dobson, the Vice President of DTE Biomass Energy, those landfills are an opportunity to convert harmful landfill gas into a product that can generate electricity, heat homes, or even be used to power buses and cars.

[00:35] In this podcast, we had the chance to talk with him about how landfill gas is generated, what can be done with it, and why it’s an important part of meeting renewable energy standards for many companies and states around the country.

[00:50] Kevin, when people are thinking about renewable energy, they’re thinking solar. They’re thinking wind. They might think about hydroelectric, but landfill gas never rises to the top of anyone’s mind. Maybe yours, but when it comes to renewable sources of energy.

[01:08] I’d like to start with what landfill gas is, how does it work as an energy source?

Kevin Dobson: [01:16] That’s a great question. Even before I started with the company I didn’t know what landfill gas was. It’s definitely not on most people’s radar. When you think of renewable energy landfill gas certainly is not one of the first things they think about.

[01:29] In essence, what landfill gas is, is a byproduct of the natural decomposition of waste that’s in a landfill. As the waste accumulates in the landfill, naturally it will decompose. There’s a gas, what we call landfill gas, is a byproduct of that decomposition. It’s about 50 percent methane, 40 to 50 percent carbon dioxide, and then some other trace gasses, as well.

[01:55] What companies like DTE Biomass Energy are able to do is harness that, collect that gas and produce renewable electricity or renewable natural gas out of that. Again, it’s considered renewable because this is a waste source that otherwise would vent into the atmosphere.

David:  [02:12] Methane, it’s a pretty harmful greenhouse gas. What were companies doing or what were municipalities that own landfills doing before companies like DTE Biomass started doing something with the gas?

Kevin:  [02:31] That’s a good question. If you go way, way back, again, this is a very harmful greenhouse gas. Methane is 20 to 25 times more potent than other greenhouse gasses, than even carbon dioxide. Way back in the day, the gas would just naturally vent into the atmosphere and help with global warming. It doesn’t smell that nice, as well.

[02:53] Over the last 40 to 50 years, the government regulations have started to crimp down on that. Now, landfills, for the most part, are regulated and are being forced and told, “You must collect and destroy this gas.”

[03:06] The most convenient thing that people used to do with the landfill gas is just collect it and destroy it via a flare, what we call a candlestick flare. If you ever go by a landfill and you see a pipe sticking out of the ground with a flame coming out of it, it looks like a candle, that’s literally the landfill gas being combusted and vented into the atmosphere.

[03:26] What we’re able to do, companies like us are saying, “That’s a valuable fuel source. Rather than destroying it into the atmosphere, let us collect it and let us put it through a turbine. Let us put it through an engine to create renewable electricity.

[03:40] Or we can purify it through some other processes and purify it into a natural gas that will meet a pipeline specification where we can inject it into a pipeline and create natural gas out of that.

David:  [03:53] There actually is quite a bit of product there than something can be done with. We don’t just have to see those candlestick flares everywhere.

Kevin:  [04:02] Exactly. What’s nice is there’s different forms of energy that we can create. Not only can we create renewable electricity, we can create the renewable natural gas. What we’re able to do is fit the product with the best optimal use. It might be, in the state of California, maybe where there’s a high demand for renewable electricity. We might be able to put an electricity plant in.

[04:22] In other situations, maybe the best use of that is to create renewable natural gas for use as a vehicle fuel. As you see CNG and LNG vehicle, bus fleets, start to become more popular that’s a fuel source that they can use. Now, we’re actually creating vehicle fuel.

David:  [04:41] That’s really interesting.

[04:43] DTE’s been doing this since the late ’80s, I believe. 1988.

Kevin:  [04:47] Correct.

David:  [04:50] Why is this an attractive line of business for DTE Energy?

Kevin:  [04:53] A couple reasons. One, I think it’s a good investment from a capital standpoint because the demand for renewable electricity, the demand for renewable natural gas is something that we see increasing and continues to increase. This is a good market for us to come in and make some good investments.

[05:15] Like you said, we’ve been around since 1988. We’re one of the leaders in the industry. We have a great reputation. We have good relationships in the industry to help us get more projects and grow the business.

[05:26] The other thing it does is it has a nice green story to it. It is nice when you can make investments and create good shareholder value but, at the same time, we’re helping clean the environment. We’re helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re helping put new jobs in the ground for local communities.

David:  [05:43] I would imagine that that’s one of the biggest benefits that communities see from investments like this, is good jobs.

Kevin:  [05:52] Exactly. These are jobs at landfills. Again, these aren’t in the glorious parts of the city. These are more in rural areas. We’re able to bring jobs, not only direct jobs of DTE employees running these facilities, but all the ancillary jobs, all the indirect jobs related to servicing the equipment, providing the supplies, construction jobs coming in.

[06:15] The local community definitely benefits from these projects.

David:  [06:18] It’s not just in Michigan. I think that’s probably most fascinating for a few people, anyway. You think of DTE being a Michigan based company, which it is, but DTE Biogas is all over the country.

Kevin:  [06:33] We’re spread out. We have 20 projects right now. We’re currently building our 21st project, but only four of those 20 projects are here in the state of Michigan. 16 of our other operating projects are anywhere from New York to California and everywhere in‑between.

David:  [06:48] This is something that because of states and their renewable energy standards, this is the kind of gas that helps meet those standards. I imagine that that’s a pretty big driver of business.

Kevin:  [07:00] Absolutely. The different states have different renewable portfolio standards. Michigan has a 15 percent renewable standard. California’s got 50 percent of electricity must be renewable. We follow where the demand will take us.

[07:16] On the renewable natural gas side, there is a federal legislation and federal mandate that mandate where you need to provide renewable natural gas.

[07:27] [background music]

Kevin:  [07:27] That’s a countrywide portfolio standard, if you will.

David:  [07:30] Very interesting. Thank you very much for the time, Kevin.

Kevin:  [07:34] Thank you.