SWACO profits from methane created by landfill

Instead of burning the gas, company collects it, sells it at a premium

The landfill’s flares are a little dimmer, but its coffers are getting a lot fuller.

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio made about $1 million in the first year of a new program that refines methane and carbon-dioxide gas generated at the landfill and sells it in California.

If it reaches its full potential, the program could help stabilize trash-collection rates while contributing to renewable energy, said Dave Bush, chairman of SWACO’s board, at a grand opening for the facility yesterday.

It’s the realization of a deal struck more than two years ago with Aria Energy, a renewable-energy company based in Novi, Mich., that spent $22.5 million to build a facility to refine the gas at the landfill and pump it into a Columbia Gas pipeline. Aria was responsible for construction and operating costs.

“It’s going to come whether we like it or not,” Bush said. “Gas that was part of a greenhouse problem is part of a green-energy solution.”

The plant still is ramping up, said Richard M. DiGia, Aria’s president and chief executive. When it operates at full capacity, it could generate $2 million to $3 million a year for SWACO.

SWACO has 177 natural-gas collection points scattered across its 164-acre landfill, the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in central Ohio. Miles of underground piping suck the gas out under pressure, and it is then refined at Aria’s new plant on SWACO’s property.

Most of the gas is methane and carbon dioxide, and Aria’s system removes others that aren’t useful. It then pumps the refined gas into a nearby Columbia Gas pipeline and sells it to a power company in California.

Previously, SWACO burned off the gas through three flares set up at the landfill so that that it didn’t build up underground or leak into the air. Now, those flares burn only the gas that Aria can’t handle.

The landfill generates enough natural gas in one day to power about a dozen homes for a year.

“The goal of it is for them to take all of it,” said Daniel Fannin, SWACO compliance officer. “They’re taking the biggest majority of it.”

Aria has a 20-year contract to buy the natural gas with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District in California, where low-carbon fuel standards provide incentives for power companies to use renewable fuels such as landfill gas. DiGia said the local molecules won’t make it to California, but the natural gas is sold as a commodity that can be used in the West Coast power plants.

Aria also can sell it to be used for vehicles as compressed natural gas under a federal program, DiGia said.

At its peak, SWACO can receive about 22.5 percent of the royalties on gas sales, Fannin said. That could generate up to $3 million a year for the authority.

Aria started processing gas at the landfill in February 2014, DiGia said, and it has been adding capacity ever since. Because the landfill is a stable source of methane, Aria is able to sell it at a premium.

“We have more room to grow,” he said.