Iowa City, University of Iowa project will use landfill gas to power campus
February 28, 2011
By Gregg Hennigan/SourceMedia Group News
IOWA CITY – Gas from the Iowa City landfill will be used to help the University of Iowa power its research campus, an environmentally friendly project that also will boost the city’s coffers.
The city will pump methane, a gas created as garbage decays, through a pipeline to the UI Research Park, previously known as Oakdale Research Park. The UI, which will pay the city for the gas, will use it to supply electricity and heat to the campus.
The goal is to have the system operational one year from now.
The benefits of the project are many, local officials and national experts said. The city gets money for something it would otherwise burn off, the money spent by the UI stays local and the landfill gas offsets usage of fossil fuels like natural gas.
“The more creative we can be with approaching (sustainability) from a revenue-stream perspective as well as from an environmental perspective, I think we’ll continue to be out there on that cutting edge,” Iowa City Council member Regenia Bailey said.
The Iowa City-UI project is especially efficient for landfill-gas projects because the methane will be used to generate both electricity and heat, a process known as cogeneration, as opposed to using it to produce just one kind of energy.
“That is absolutely the most efficient way to use it … so I actually applaud them for doing that,” said Jeremy O’Brien, the director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America.
There were 541 landfill-gas energy projects nationwide at the end of last year, up 87 percent from 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The projects foster community partnerships, reduce odor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Swarupa Ganguli, a program manager for the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program. Methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, although Iowa City’s current practice of flaring the landfill gas resolves most of the pollution concern.
The environmental benefit from the 541 projects is approximately equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 18.5 million passenger vehicles, according to EPA.
Roughly 70 percent of the projects are used to produce electricity, with the rest used to offset the use of other fuels, like natural gas and coal, Ganguli said.
Four of the projects are in Iowa. That’s counting one involving the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency that is on hold because of a legal dispute between the agency and the company that owns the system that retrieves the methane.
The Iowa City-UI project will collect methane from the city’s 180-acre landfill west of town and pump it through a six-mile-long underground pipeline to the Research Park, north of Coralville.
The UI has invested $25 million in a new energy system for the growing research campus, said Ferman Milster, the UI’s associate director of utilities and energy management. That includes new electric and mechanical distribution systems and a new central chilled water plant
It has two reciprocating engines that can burn either natural gas or landfill gas. The UI is planning on more than 90 percent of the electric power at the research campus to be generated with landfill gas, as well as some of the heat, Milster said.
The UI also is installing a biomass boiler that will burn wood chips. The goal is to eventually have the Research Park run 100 percent on renewable fuel, Milster said.
Currently, the primary sources are natural gas and buying power off the electrical grid. The coal, natural gas and oil resources that serve as fuel come from out of state, Milster said. So not only would the new system be more environmentally friendly, but the money spent on fuel would stay local.
“We’ll be buying our biomass local. We’ll be buying the landfill gas local. It will be a source of revenue for the city,” he said. “And that’s a key aspect of the sustainability, is the economic piece of it.”
The UI’s main campus in Iowa City spends $27 million a year on fuel and electric power, with the Research Park spending another $2.5 million, he said.
Milster said the UI may not see a significant decrease in its utility bills, but it doesn’t expect to spend more.
Any cost savings are secondary, said Paul Chamberlin, the University of New Hampshire’s assistant vice president for energy and campus development. About 60 percent of his school’s energy comes from landfill gas, with a goal of getting to 85 percent.
“The reason you do one of these projects is really about securing your energy sources for the future and reducing your reliance on fossil fuels, reducing your greenhouse-gas footprint,” Chamberlin said.
Since it started using landfill gas nearly two years ago, natural gas prices have been low and the venture has been cost-neutral, but he believes it will be a “home run” financially over the life of the project as fossil fuel prices rise.
Details are still being finalized on what the city of Iowa City will be paid for its gas.
The city expects to spend $2 million for the gas conditioning and compression equipment at the landfill, said Rick Fosse, the city’s public works director. It’s not yet known if the city, the UI or a third party will own and operate that equipment.
The UI spent about $500,000 to equip the new reciprocating engines with the ability to burn landfill gas, Milster said.
MidAmerican Energy will build, own and operate the pipeline.
The city plans to send to the UI all of the methane the landfill produces, which amounts to 1,200 cubic feet per minute, Fosse said. That gas would otherwise be flared at no monetary benefit to the city.
“It turns a liability into an asset,” Fosse said.
O’Brien, of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said after the infrastructure is in place, “in a sense, it’s a free fuel.”