Waste Management Partnering to Find Gas in the Trash

There are 1,700 operating landfills in the U.S., and according to the the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program, they contain enough natural gas to produce 2,643 megawatts of electricity. As part of its previously announced goal of developing 60 landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) projects by 2012, Waste Management (s WMI), one of the largest landfill operators in the country, said today it plans to partner with private and municipal landfill owners to tap those trash-based resources.

Landfill gas from rotting garbage is roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide. The methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, is usually vented and burned off on site, but as natural gas prices have soared over the last few years, capturing that gas now has the potential to make landfill operators stinking rich. There are LGFTE projects in operation at 455 landfills across the U.S., producing 1,383 megawatts of power, but the EPA has identified another 535 sites as promising candidates that could produce an additional 1,260 megawatts.

Waste Management currently operates renewable energy projects at 112 of its landfills and is developing facilities and another 60 sites. The company aims to produce 700 megawatts of energy from those 172 projects by 2012. It’s been converting waste to energy for decades, much of it through its subsidiary Wheelabrator Technologies, founded in 1975.

But Waste Management isn’t the only company converting trash into cash. Energy Investors Funds and Enpower Corp. last year bought Landfill Energy Systems, which claims to have developed 22 landfill gas projects generating 80 MW, for an undisclosed sum.

Waste Management says energy recovery is among its top priorities, and according to CEO David Steiner, the company aims to produce enough energy from landfills to power 2 million homes by 2020. That will likely require development at nearly every landfill, an ambitious goal. But between the landfills WM owns and this new push to partner with independent operators, Waste Management could get a huge energy bump from all those dumps.

Map Courtesy of the EPA.