A College Powered by Garbage
A dozen or so miles north of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) lies a manmade mountain filled with coffee grounds, banana peels, moldy bread—in short, ordinary household garbage. This growing mound of refuse outside Rochester actually helps provides power and heat, and hot water for UNH’s nearly 15,000-student campus in Durham.
Most Americans get their electricity from oil, coal, or natural gas — fossil fuels that have been extracted from the ground. But as concern over carbon footprints and climate change grows, communities are increasingly seeking clean, green alternatives such as wind, water, and solar power. UNH, a school with a longstanding commitment to the environment, began investigating landfill gas a few years ago, after it installed a plant that burned natural gas for energy and provided hot water for heating. The gas burned relatively cleanly, but it still emitted carbon dioxide — and that didn’t sit well with university officials.
Meanwhile, Waste Management, the company that operates the nearby landfill, was dealing with a surplus of gas containing 50% methane, which is created when bacteria break down organic waste. Methane is a pollutant, and can’t be released into the air, but it can be used as fuel.
Most landfills are forced to simply burn off their excess gas. But after Waste Management officials realized UNH could use the methane, the only hard part was getting it to Durham.
Four years and $49 million later, the 12.6-mile EcoLine pipeline is in full operation. Methane is extracted from the landfill using a system of wells and vacuums, then purified before being sent to UNH’s plant.
The project, which can power up to 85% of the campus, is great on many levels. It stabilizes the price of gas and the supply — even the coldest winter won’t cause a trash shortage. And while methane doesn’t burn any more cleanly than other natural gases, its carbon output is insignificant, since anything it releases was first sucked out of the air by coffee vines, banana trees, and other organic matter now rotting in a landfill. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a renewable fuel.
New Hampshire standards require electric utilities to generate at least part of their energy from renewable sources, so to help pay for the pipeline, UNH sells credits to utilities that don’t meet the requirement.
Why don’t more places use land- fill gas? In fact, “it’s pretty widely used in the US and Europe,” says Joan Ogden, an environmental-science professor at the University of California, Davis. “It’s established technology, a real win.” Waste Management alone runs more than 100 projects. But a nearby landfill is necessary for success.
“It was serendipitous,” says Paul Chamberlin, UNH’s assistant vice president for energy and campus development. “We had the right circumstances.” Who says you can’t turn trash into treasure.
Reprinted from Parade.com