Once upon a time (circa 2002), in a land far, far away (Ohio), a group of 83 municipalities in the state, part of a group known as American Municipal Power, was faced with a challenge: by 2010, their many source of energy—the Richard H. Gorsuch Station coal-fired power plant—would be closed. A contract with a third party would provide their energy between 2010 and 2012, but by 2013, the cities would need a new energy plan.
While the group made a collective choice to power the cities with the dirty fossil fuels of another coal plant, one city resolved to go its own, greener way. “Ultimately Oberlin decided that it didn’t want to take power supply from that proposed coal power station,” says Steve Dupee, Electric Director of Oberlin, Ohio. “It wanted to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of its power portfolio and began down a path to look at resources that were carbon-neutral, but that would also be competitive and reliable.” In 2008, the City Council officially announced that it would not participate in the coal power deal and spent the next three years looking for a better match.
In 2009, the city hired energy consulting firm Black and Veatch to study and recommend alternative power sources. In February 2010, the firm came back with an answer: garbage. In addition to pursuing alternatives like hydroelectric power, the energy consultants’ primary recommendation to the city was to negotiate the purchase of landfill gas, aka the fumes coming out of Ohio’s dumps. For a city like Oberlin, which had been successfully sourcing a small fraction of its energy from a nearby landfill for years, Black and Veatch’s solution just made sense.
For every million tons of municipal solid waste (and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, we Americans created 243 million tons in 2009 alone), about 1 megawatt of power can be produced through the natural process of anaerobic methane fermentation. To capitalize on this process, landfills can take advantage of infrastructure they most likely already have thanks to federal laws requiring the largest sites to capture and/or burn off the methane gas that is naturally (and constantly) emitted by giant piles of trash.
With just a small additional capital investment into machinery to compress, filter, and dry the gas before sending it into the local utility grid, landfills can go from being environmental nightmares to energy producers. Further, because landfill gas is naturally produced twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it is an especially reliable source. Best of all, it’s relatively cheap, costing approximately $0.065 per kWh. (While that’s more than the $0.025 per kWh that coal costs, it’s significantly less than solar which can cost $0.12 to $0.30 per hour.)
Only one year after Black and Veatch’s recommendation, in February 2011, the City Council signed a 15-year, $66 million power contract, through which American Municipal Power would buy 8.1 megawatts of landfill gas from Waste Management Renewable Energy LLC – meaning it would purchase enough garbage-generated energy to meet it’s basic minimum energy requirements. On January 25, 2013, the city finally plugged in. While the landfills themselves are not located within Oberlin—the energy comes from Mahoning County Landfill in New Springfield, Ohio and Geneva Landfill, in Geneva, Ohio—they are projected to provide 60,000 megawatt-hours, translating into a whopping 55 percent of the city’s expected energy needs by 2013.
Through a plan that combines landfill gas, hydropower, gas turbines, solar, wind, and nuclear energy, the city of Oberlin expects to be relying on 90 percent renewable sources for its energy needs by 2015. While other cities should look to Oberlin as an example of how to take the fullest advantage of local energy resources, that calculus will change depending on location, geography, and a number of other factors. In Iowa, that might mean wind, in Arizona, solar; but in Oberlin, the answer was garbage.
Oh, and those other Ohio municipalities planning to go back to coal? Their plans changed, too, after costly environmental regulations and a lagging economy killed plans for the proposed plant. They’ll still be using some coal-based energy, but they’ll also be turning to cleaner sources like natural gas, hydropower, and wind to power their cities.
This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.
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