County’s Methane-Powered Electric Plant Opens

NEWARK – Decomposing trash at the Worcester County landfill will now provide electricity, instead of just taking up space, with the opening of a new methane-powered electric plant.

The plant, owned and operated by Curtis Engineering of Baltimore in partnership with Worcester County, will generate three kilowatts of electricity when all three engines come on line in the next year.

“That’s enough to power 2,700 homes, about the size of Snow Hill,” said Al Grimes, president of Curtis Engineering.

County Commissioner Louise Gulyas, vice president of the board, pressed a big red button to start up the single bright orange Waukesha engine at the methane plant in front of a small crowd of onlookers Wednesday.

“It is wonderful,” Gulyas said, standing in front of the modest building housing the methane works. The opening of the plant is timely, Gulyas said.

“If you listen to the news, we have to move forward and find other sources of energy … This methane gas project we’re celebrating today is a bold, bold step. Your trash is going to be our electricity,” Gulyas said.

The methane plant not only produces electricity, it removes methane from the atmosphere and reduces Worcester County’s carbon footprint.

The energy produced from the landfill’s methane when all three engines are online will reduce carbon dioxide by 100,000 tons a year, said Tom Koch, a consultant with Curtis Engine, and substitute for 300,000 barrels of foreign oil annually.

According to Curtis Engine materials, each megawatt of power generated by methane is the equivalent of planting 12,600 acres of forest, saving 9,327 tons of car emissions and saving 209 railcars of coal.

“This is a pure win for everyone involved,” Koch said.

“This will help address one of the greatest challenges facing us today, climate change,” said John R. Griffin, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s one of the worst greenhouse gases there is,” said Grimes.         

According to Griffin, methane has 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.        

Americans are using 11 percent more energy than they were in the past, Grimes said, pointing to the number and size of the electronics used by many U. S. households, like flat-screen televisions.

“America is a very affluent society and we have paid for it in kilowatts,” Grimes said.    

The project, first proposed by the Worcester County Commissioners six years ago, was not pursued until 2006 because it was not financially viable. Curtis Engine found that selling carbon credits to supplement power sales to Old Dominion Electric Cooperative made financial sense and talks began about four years ago.

“It’s always been environmentally fashionable to do this, but now it’s economically fashionable to do this also,” said Grimes.

The methane plant cost just $5 million and took two years to get through the design, permitting and construction stages. Curtis Engineering designed a system to adapt leachate wells already in place to also collect methane gas, which is then piped to the plant, chilled to remove water and hard particles, and reheated to drive the reciprocating engine to create electricity. Excess gas will be burned up in a flare, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

The power will be sold to ODEC, a regional wholesale energy supplier.

“While this project can provide only a small percentage of our total generation requirements, it provides additional resource diversity for us,” Lisa Johnson, senior vice president for power supply at ODEC, said.

Power companies in Maryland are required to offer some energy generated from renewable resources.

Worcester County will receive royalties from power and carbon credit sales.

While methane power is a low-cost, quick turnaround approach to renewable energy, in the world of public projects, it is not easy to manage.

“It’s complicated. It’s an unstable fuel,” said Grimes during a tour of the plant. “It requires a lot of attention and adjustments to make the engine run on the methane.”

A second generator will be added in the fall, and a third in early 2009, to bring the plant fully online. With three engines, the plant will be able to handle 2,200 standard cubic feet per minute of methane.      

The Worcester County landfill should be in use through 2045, supplying years of methane-generated electricity.

“It’s a growing landfill and based on the population projections of Worcester County we could end up using more engines here,” Grimes said.

Methane can also be collected at wastewater treatment plants, which is something to consider for the future, Worcester County Public Works Director John Tustin said.

“Where we’re standing here today is the beginning of energy independence,” said Grimes. “It’s clean energy in the region where it’s needed. We’re very, very excited about that.”