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October 28, 2009

Electricity from organic waste

Bob Burtt

ToromontThere is something exciting happening at landfill sites across Canada, where otherwise harmful gases, formed from rotting garbage, are being burned to keep the lights on in thousands of Canadian homes and businesses.

The practice, gives new meaning to the old adage that says one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and it is an excellent example of how biomass is being converted to a source of green energy.

Simply put, biomass energy involves the conversion of organic waste matter, such as yard waste and kitchen scraps, into a combustible form of energy. As it turns out, landfill sites, along with livestock manure are two of the largest sources of methane.

According to a 2005 survey by Environment Canada, there were 52 landfill sites in Canada equipped with landfill gas recovery systems. Twenty three of those systems use the gas to generate electricity and 29 simply flare, or burn the landfill gas releasing harmless emissions to the atmosphere.

Of the 23 systems, 14 produce electricity and nine send the landfill gas to nearby businesses where the energy is used to heat the buildings or to fuel industrial processes.

All told, the 52 installations reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6.4 million tonnes.

That, says Environment Canada spokesperson Sujata Raisinghani, has the same benefit as taking more than one million cars off the road every year.

The technology is proven and represents the potential for an even greater reduction in harmful gases as other communities choose to harness the energy from the huge supply that sits unused in landfills across the country.

Waterloo Region was one of the first communities to harness energy from landfill gases and uses the energy to keep the lights on.

The region has operated a 72-hectare landfill site in Waterloo for 37 years. Officials estimate, that by 2028, the site will have accepted over 15 million tonnes of refuse.

In 1995, the region constructed a new gas collection system and began burning, or flaring the gas off. That helped prevent offensive odours and kept the gas from migrating away from the landfill site.

In 1999, the region entered into a deal with Toromont Energy and the Ontario Power Authority that would see the gas, not only burned off, but used to generate electricity.

Under the agreement, the region collects and supplies landfill gas and Toromont operates engines and generators that burn and convert the gas to electricity. The landfill gas contains about 50 per cent methane, the primary gas required for fuel.

Toromont invested $7 in a building and equipment to get started in 1999 and has just, or will soon, complete an expansion that will significantly increase production.

The electricity created at the power station, owned and operated by Toromont, is sold to Ontario Power Authority, and fed into the grid. The electricity generated is enough to power between 3,500 and 4,000 houses and with current and planned expansions that could generate enough to provide power for as many as 10,000 homes.

For every home powered by biomass or other green energy sources there is one less that needs to rely on energy from coal-burning power plants known to belch harmful emissions into the air.

“It’s a win –win situation,” says Jon Arsenault, manager of engineering and waste management programs at Waterloo Region.

“The revenue is important for us, but it makes a lot of sense from an environmental perspective as well,” Arsenault says.

“It is better than direct venting or flaring it,” he says.

The region collects royalties on the gas it collects and sells to Toromont and the company, in turn sells the electricity to the Ontario Power Authority.

Until now, the region has received between $200,000 and $250,000 a year in royalties, but Arsenault can see the day when that amount climbs to between $500,000 and $750,000 a year.

The project is probably among the top 10 largest of its kind in Canada, Arsenault says.

Arsenault figures the Waterloo landfill site, the only active site in the region of more than 500,000 people, could last another 25 to 30 years and the gas collection program would last beyond the life of the landfill.

The most recent data indicates that the amount of municipal solid waste continues to grow. Between 2002 and 2004, total municipal waste in Canada jumped, from 30.7 to 33.2 million tonnes, an increase of about eight per cent.

Waterloo Region has a second gas collection project at a closed landfill site in Cambridge, but at that site the methane is piped to Gerdeau Ameris Steel, a nearby company that uses fuel from the landfill site to augment its supply of natural gas.

Again, the company realizes huge savings by reducing reliance on natural gas and the region collects a royalty, albeit a lot less than at the Waterloo site.

Chris Turner is the operations manager for the Toromont project at Waterloo.

Turner says the venture has been a successful one for Toromont, particularly since Ontario allows producers to sell power on an open market instead of giving Ontario Power Authority a monopoly.

That, in addition to provincial programs that offer incentives and encouragement for small operators and individuals to generate and sell power for use on the grid, has improved the outlook for the Toromont project and others like it.

“Before deregulation, it was a little hard to make ends meet,” Turner says.

Toromont also runs programs at the Beare Road landfill site in Toronto, Carleton Region, Guelph and Hamilton’s sewage treatment plant.

Concern for clean air is one of the issues creating demand for projects like those in Waterloo and other communities in Canada, he says.

Bob Burtt is a freelance writer and editor.

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