Turning Trash into Energy

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BATH, N.Y. (WETM-TV) – Americans generate over 250 million tons of trash a year and recycle about a third of that according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Every week when you kick your trash to the curb, most of it disappears into a landfill. If it’s heading to the Steuben County Landfill in Bath, it gets a second life.

The Steuben county landfill picks up an additional 100,000 tons of garbage every year. And they turn that into power, right back into your own home. 

“All of this 100000 tons eventually has the collection pipes in it and those pipes take the gas to the electric plant. So all this garbage is producing the methane.” Vince Spagnoletti says.

Spagnoletti, commissioner of Steuben County Public works, says there are 40 gas wells scattered across the landfill to collect the gas created by decomposing garbage. Rich Bills, the assistant land fill supervisor explains how the gas transitions to power.

“A series of wells and pipes are installed into the landfill and they’ve got what they call blowers down at the gas plant where they will suck the gas out of the landfill that goes in and puts it right into those engines and those engines run a lot like your car engine would run. It burns it and in the process of burning it, the fuel it’ll turn a generator and that produces electricity,” he says.

The methane at the landfill is sold to Steuben Rural Electric Cooperative, which then generates the power at a plant it owns onsite. They release that power into the grid for customers to use. They estimate their influx of 100,000 tons of garbage converts to powering 2,000 homes every year.

Of course getting the maximum energy from the methane depends on the trash, and all trash in this case is not created equal.

Bills explains, “It’s the organics in the garbage that will decompose and produce the methane so municipal solid waste, your normal garbage bags, restaurant waste, things like that.”

The landfill workers tune the well to try and get a 50% methane gas mix going into the plant. In addition, sucking the gas out of the garbage actually helps out the smell in the surrounding area.

Spagnoletti describes what it’s like even in the heart of the landfill.
“One of the good things to happen from that it eliminates all the odors up here. There’s very little odor”

According to Spagnoletti, even the excess generated by the power producing process can be recycled. 

He says, “The combination of the engines and generators throw off heat, like the engine of your car throws off heat. What we are looking to do here is to take that thrown off heat and use it to power up a lumber mill, or a greenhouse that produces lettuce or tomatoes.”

The process as well as the profitable plant are by no means a temporary resident and actually have the both the ability and plan to expand.

“We are building right now, you can see in the distance over here we are building another cell that will take us our another 5 years, and another cell after that another 5 years, we have enough permitted room here until about 2025 we own enough land to have enough garbage come in here for the next 100, 150 years so this is a long term process in both depositing the garbage as well as producing the electricity.”

The landfill would like to get a third generator in the future, but that will only happen with increased methane production, which means they need more trash. Officials at the Chemung County landfill are also looking into the possibility of this operation for their landfill as well. 

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