Trash lights 1000 houses

| 13 Feb 2012 | 02:44

Thousands of gulls circle the fresh trash that’s just been dropped by a caravan of garbage trucks at the Sussex County landfill in Lafayette. Few birds bother to investigate the highest plateau of this manmade mountain. This is the old part of the landfill, which has been filled with garbage and entombed in a four-ply lining. But just because all’s quiet up here, make no mistake: this mountain is still digesting.

The disintegrating garbage is going through its anaerobic phase, producing methane and carbon dioxide. Methane, when it escapes, is the most harmful of the greenhouse gases a landfill produces. But when it’s captured, methane can turn turbines that make electricity – and money.

Collecting methane is not a new practice for the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority. They’ve been doing it in some form or another since 1996. (After all, points out Chief Engineer Tom Varro, the utilities workers are the ones working there, breathing the air.) The gas used to be piped to a $1 million flare that burned off 99 percent of the contaminants. Then better technology came along.

In June 2011, a company called Energenic, in partnership with the municipal authority, opened a power generating station that runs on the dump’s methane.

The fact that your food scraps could power your electric car reminds Varro of his favorite movie. “It’s kind of like Back to the Future. Shove a banana peel in car: “1.21 gigawatts!” Varro says, imitating Doc Brown.

After driving me around the landfill, Varro and Recycling Coordinator Reenee Casapulla knock on the door of a trailer. Duane Nelson, the garbage-to-energy plant’s lead operator, invites us into his office.

Nelson wears earplugs on a string around his neck. When he takes us next door, their purpose is clear. The generating station sounds like the inside of a blender. Here, in a room with panels upon panels of switches and controls, the methane goes through a compressor and then two Caterpillar generators turn it into electricity that is fed into the grid. Energenic and the municipal authority split the profits.

The plant is operating at half capacity, throwing off enough electricity to power 1,000 houses. As the 54-acre landfill grows it’ll produce more gas. Production will hit its peak around 2018, when the landfill fills up.