From Garbage to Gas

Landfills and sewage treatment plants are an overlooked source of clean energy – but a boom in bio-methane might be coming.

What was once the I-95 landfill near Lorton, Virginia, is now dozens of acres of rolling green fields – dotted by more than 200 metal pipes emerging from the grass.

The pipes are wellheads for natural gas, and they are collecting the methane generated by more than 10 million tons of decomposing garbage dumped by Washington, D.C.-area residents over the course of 30 years.

A vacuum pump draws the gas from underground, through the wellheads, and connects it to roughly 14 miles of pipeline that run throughout the landfill. Under each wellhead, says Mike Malfitano, an environmental technical specialist for Fairfax County, “there’s a three-foot bore hole that goes 110 feet down into the waste mass.”

Although it closed in 1995, county officials expect the landfill to keep emitting gas for at least the next decade. On its best days, says Fairfax County environmental engineer Chris Meoli, the landfill generates 2,000 cubic feet per minute of gas – enough to create 4.9 megawatts of electricity. It’s more than enough to power the Noman M. Cole wastewater treatment plant three miles down the road, saving the county as much as $500,000 a year in power costs, according to a 2015 county report. What’s left over is sold to the grid.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills are among the nation’s largest sources of methane, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all methane emissions generated by human activity in 2012. That’s why advocates of landfill gas projects like the one in Fairfax County say these efforts have enormous environmental benefits – first, by capturing harmful methane emissions that would otherwise contribute to climate change and second, by replacing more carbon-heavy fuels for power and transportation.

Moreover, there’s no shortage of garbage. According to the group Energy Vision, Americans dump about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste per year – including 70 million tons of food and yard waste. It’s a clean energy opportunity the nation is literally throwing away.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…


A Practical Path Toward a Carbon Tax

Rep. John Delaney’s carbon tax plan would fund rebates for low-income families, help displaced coal workers and lower corporate tax rates. But its best virtue might be bipartisan appeal.

In advance of global climate talks set to continue in Paris this November, the United States announced an ambitious goal last fall: to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade.

According to the White House, achieving this target would require the United States to roughly double the current pace of reductions in carbon pollution. In 2013, U.S. carbon emissions totaled nearly 6.7 million metric tons – making America the world’s second-largest producer of carbon emissions after China.

Across the political spectrum, experts increasingly agree that the most direct and efficient way to reduce carbon is to put a tax on it. In British Columbia, for example, per capita fuel consumption has dropped by 16 percent since a carbon tax was introduced in 2008 – compared to rising consumption in the rest of Canada. The province has also continued to enjoy a healthy rate of economic growth at 2 percent per year. As an op-ed in the Globe and Mail put it: “It works.”

Where there’s less agreement is how to structure a carbon tax – and most importantly, how to spend the money it would raise. According to Yoram Bauman and Shi-Ling Hsu, imposing a British Columbia-style tax of $30 per metric ton in the United States would raise as much as $145 billion a year. It’s a tempting sum of money, particularly for progressives with a growing wish list of domestic spending priorities.

But some argue that the only politically feasible way to pass a carbon tax in the United States is to keep it “revenue neutral” – meaning that every dollar raised in revenue goes toward rebates or other tax cuts.

That’s also the approach in British Columbia, where carbon tax revenues were expected to total $1.2 billion this year. Officials have used the funds to pay for rebates to low-income families (equal to $115.50 per adult and $34.50 per child) and to lower taxes on individuals, companies and small businesses. A report by the nonprofit Clean Energy Canada concluded that revenue neutrality “has two very important up-sides: it helps bring the business community onside (or at least, it keeps that community from going too far offside), and it makes the tax difficult to remove once it’s in effect.”

Among U.S. champions of a carbon tax, proponents of a similar “tax swap” include Democratic Rep. John Delaney (MD-6), who introduced carbon tax legislation this spring. “If you want a carbon tax put in place as soon as possible, you have to embrace a carbon tax that has an opportunity for bipartisan appeal,” Delaney says. “We’ve seen a lot of proposals where the revenues are used by government any way they want. People don’t really trust that, and certainly not my Republican colleagues.”

Continued at the Washington Monthly…