Pile Of Garbage To Pile Of Cash?

Weltevreden Landfill Site on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa converts trash into methane gas, which process protects the ozone layer,and provides a source of energy. World Summit discusses energy in South Africa. August 27, 2002
Jim Voss hopes his company will make a fortune out of garbage — specifically the methane gas produced when tons of trash decay in landfills across the nation.

That methane — 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — has to go somewhere: federal rules requires large landfills to either burn it or pipe it away to be processed.

Voss and others are convinced there's money to be made in the process by selling the stinky garbage gases to those hunting a steady, consistently priced source of energy.

Voss is president of Arizona-based Methane Credit LLC, which this fall plans to start turning landfill methane into enough electricity to power 500 homes a year in rural Wayne County, 50 miles east of Raleigh.

It's not cheap enough yet for most electric utilities to replace coal with methane at their power plants, but the gas is priced attractively enough for many companies to pipe it directly from landfills to power their facilities.

"The development of these things is becoming increasingly favorable," Voss said. "We can come in with these indigenous supply lines and provide more or less a fixed price."

The market for methane has developed as international demand has caused the price of natural gas to skyrocket. In April, the commercial price of natural gas was 15 percent higher than a year earlier and 56 percent higher than three years ago.

According to state and federal environmental officials, about 380 landfills nationwide and at least 19 in North Carolina are turning turbines for electricity or selling methane directly for industrial uses. Such pipelines have carried the greenhouse gas to some companies for a decade or more.

In eastern North Carolina's Wilson County, Voss' company is negotiating with a Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. tire manufacturing plant to deliver gas generated by 2 million tons of buried garbage from a landfill that closed in 1998 after 24 years.

Now, instead of having to burn off the methane, Wilson County hopes to collect a percentage of the profits.