Cost of Methane Capture at Landfills Could Shut Down Current Programs

Tom Johnson | February 3, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Bill looks for affordable way to fund burning of recovered gas to produce electricity and eliminate lethal greenhouse emissions

methane capture
With hundreds of old garbage dumps in New Jersey, some of them are seeking to capture methane, a lethal source of greenhouse gas pollution leaking from the landfills and contributing to global climate change.

That effort could be jeopardized, according to some, who say at least five county landfills might have to shut down their operations because they can no longer afford to meet strict air pollution standards set by the state to burn the methane to produce electricity.

If so, the methane would simply escape into the atmosphere, complicating the state’s goal to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But some of the units now in place at the old dumps also fail to meet tough state standards to reduce other pollutants, which contribute to the formation of smog that blankets parts of New Jersey during summer months.

To address the problem, a legislative committee this week is expected to take up a bill (A-3358) Thursday that would help offset the costs of meeting the state’s tough pollution controls by having utility customers subsidize those expenses.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved an identical bill (S-2036) this past June.

According to backers of the bill, not adopting the legislation could mean the loss of jobs, $40 million in private invested capital to tackle the problem, and about $4 million in public funding from the state’s clean-energy program.

“The greatest irony is New Jersey would be closing its doors on its own facilities, while ratepayers in the state would continue to provide millions of dollars in support of the same technology operating in other states at emission levels deemed too dirty to run here,’’ according to Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist representing some of the facilities.

With New Jersey’s aggressive renewable-energy goals, the landfill facilities capturing methane in state produce only 5 percent of the credits needed to meet those targets, DeSanti said. In New Jersey, ratepayers are shelling out about $15 million to pay for the electricity the landfills generate, but more than $100 million at out-of-state facilities, DeSanti said.

Under the bill, projects that demonstrate an economic loss could be eligible for additional incentives from ratepayers to offset those costs. They could include landfills in Warren, Sussex, Burlington, Atlantic, and Salem counties.

The state Division of Rate Counsel opposed the bill when it came up before the Senate committee, saying it inappropriately shifts the risks of economic loss from the investors in the facilities to gas and electric customers.

“From a risk perspective this bill is nothing more than a ‘bailout’ of these facilities at ratepayer expense,’’ Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand said at the time in a letter to the panel.

The agency also argued the proposal generally thwarts the objective of promoting renewable energy, which is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The issue of what programs consumers should pay for through their energy bills –among the highest in the nation — has become a controversial issue in New Jersey in recent years, particularly from the business community. Because they use much more electricity and gas than residential customers, businesses end up paying the bulk of the surcharges related to those programs on their monthly bills.

Typically, many environmental groups would back rate counsel’s arguments. But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, while acknowledging doubts, said the benefits of creating a better market for facilities that reduce methane — even by burning it — outweigh the downside.

“There’s a lot of landfills out there not capturing the methane,’’ Tittle said. Methane is about 25 percent more potent than carbon dioxide, the other greenhouse-gas pollutant given much more emphasis by state and federal environmental regulators.