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When garbage goes green: Baltimore County is converting landfill trash into renewable energy, without burning it

Baltimore County collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy.

Trash from Baltimore County residents will be used to produce renewable energy as the county starts a project at one of its landfills to convert gas created from decomposing waste into electricity.

Instead of burning the methane gas off with a landfill flare, Energy Power Partners has agreed to collect gas produced by the Eastern Sanitary Landfill in White Marsh to create power for the county with on-site engine generators. The gas will travel through wells and pipes buried in the landfill before it’s processed and used to create electricity.

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Baltimore County will purchase the energy produced by the firm to offset the needs of municipal facilities, said Seth Blumen, the county’s energy and sustainability coordinator. The county anticipates saving $285,000 in the current fiscal year from the project because the power purchased from Energy Power Partners is less expensive than buying from another source.

Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, does routine maintenance on one of the plant's Waukesha engine generators. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020
Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, does routine maintenance on one of the plant's Waukesha engine generators. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The two-phase project is the first major renewable energy venture in Baltimore County’s history, said Steve Lafferty, the county’s inaugural Chief Sustainability Officer.

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The project is expected to generate 13 million kWh — enough energy to power 1,600 homes for a year — annually during the first phase. The second phase of the project, which is expected to be completed by year’s end, will add a third generator to increase energy production to 20 million kWh annually.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said in a statement the project will reduce the county’s carbon footprint as it works to “meet critical renewable energy goals.”

“Baltimore County can and should be a leader in environmental sustainability and my administration will continue to innovate as we work to protect our shared environment for this generation — and the next,” Olszewski said in a statement.

Beginning in June, the county entered into an agreement with Energy Power Partners to generate electricity from the landfill’s methane gas into electricity to power the facility and other small facilities nearby. The public-private initiative comes a year after the company purchased a facility located on the landfill, previously owned by Exelon Generation, to restore the site’s generators.

Lafferty said it’s important for the county to address the impact of climate change, given the federal government’s latest decision to rescind standards regulating methane emissions from the production and storage of oil and gas.

“Even the oil and gas industry is rebelling against that effort,” said Lafferty, adding the county will be among the jurisdictions nationally that will be “negatively impacted.”

Methane is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon produced by oceans and wetlands as well as decomposition, digestion and energy generation. Landfill waste is the third-largest man-made source of methane nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The flammable gas is a principal component of natural gas. But it’s also a potent greenhouse gas because it absorbs and holds heat. Methane causes 72 times more warming than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute In Washington.

Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, checks pipes at the plant's gas collection skid. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020
Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, checks pipes at the plant's gas collection skid. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Sean Naron, Baltimore County’s spokesman, said Energy Power Partners used an EPA formula to estimate that the methane emission reductions at the landfill will be the equivalent of reducing gasoline consumption by a million gallons, the removal of 2,000 cars from the road, or planting 12,300 acres of forest.

The methane capture generators at the landfill will prevent the equivalent of 10,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to the county.

Steve Gabrielle from Energy Power Partners said the Los Angeles-based firm already operates a similar renewable energy project using captured methane gas from a landfill to heat buildings at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Prince George’s County. He called Baltimore County’s project “a full recycling” process because trash will essentially turn into “green energy” for the county.

“The county has a pretty large electric load across the county, so we’re working with BGE to establish a program here that’ll let us take that electricity from this landfill and the generators that we have to sell it back to the county as green energy,” he said.

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A turkey buzzard sits on a methane well head at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, Baltimore county collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020
A turkey buzzard sits on a methane well head at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, Baltimore county collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Energy Power Partners is a private equity firm focused on renewable energy projects with contracted cash flows from utility, corporate and government customers.

Gabrielle said the firm expects the partnership with Baltimore County to last for “several decades” to provide power to the county at “a discounted rate.” He praised the county “for doing a great job” at safely capturing the landfill’s methane gas prior to his company’s presence.

“The residents can feel good that what they’re doing is being recycled and being reused for the benefit of the county,” Gabrielle said.

The gas-to-energy partnership is Olszewski’s latest effort to enhance environmental sustainability following the previous administration’s efforts to expand the county’s green footprint. In 2016, the county set a goal to generate at least 20% of its electric demand from renewable energy sources by 2022, but little progress had been made by December 2018.

The partnership is expected to offset at least 11% of the county’s energy use to help meet or exceed the 2022 goal, according to the county.

Gabrielle said the partnership will supply 20% of the county’s renewable energy needs for electricity.

Last month, Baltimore County also signed a deal to provide glass recycling years after ending the county’s previous program in 2013. Olszewski has also convened a Youth Climate Working Group to include the younger generation’s recommendations in the county’s Climate Action Plan.

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