Our relationship to energy is rapidly changing. What had once seemed like endless supplies of fossil fuels are now obviously finite and with an ever-increasing cost. The most innovative approaches to solving environmental or economic problems involve recognizing potential treasure out of what would otherwise be waste. The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is taking control of their energy future by utilizing both alternative energy and energy efficiency.
UNH will soon be the first university to tap landfill gas, generating both electricity and heat for their 5 million square foot campus. Landfill gas will be piped 12.7 miles from Waste Management’s Turnkey Recycling and Environmental Enterprise facility in Rochester, New Hampshire for this project named EcoLine. This project was made possible by the unlikely partnership between the university and the local landfill.
Turnkey currently accepts over a million tons of trash each year, including waste from the university. At the moment, the landfill generates more landfill gas than it can utilize and will continue generating gas for many years in the future. This project truly closes the loop by making us of trash. This fundamentally shifts the way that the university and community looks as waste.
“Landfill gas is a resource that is being flared right now,” said Paul Pabor, Waste Management’s Vice President of Renewable Energy. “This project allows this resource to be utilized, benefiting the university and the community.”
The university is wise to pursue alternative energy resources, particularly ones that are nearly in their backyard. Locally sourced and generated energy supplies are rare, so a lot of energy dollars have been leaving the local area. While many communities frown on having a landfill located nearby, close proximity makes such projects possible. If the landfill were located 50 miles away, the pipeline could have been prohibitively expensive and difficult to construct.
How it Works
Landfill gas is comprised primarily of carbon dioxide and methane, which are byproducts of trash as it decomposes. Methane is a particularly menacing greenhouse gas that has more than twenty times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. Landfill gas is required to be collected and burned at many landfills to mitigate the effects on the climate and smog and increase public safety. A system of pipes, wells, and pumps already exists at Turnkey for collecting this gas.
The new 12.7 mile pipeline between UNH and Turnkey runs 4 feet underground and will not be visible upon completion. After the landfill gas is routed to the campus, it will need to be enriched and purified before it is consumed. It will then power an on-site cogenerator, which produces both heat and electricity for the campus.
While many power plants generate large amounts of waste heat, cogenerators are especially efficient because the heat generated will be utilized for other purposes, such as space heating across the campus. When excess electricity is generated, it can be sold to the power grid.
Benefits of EcoLine
The project will cost an estimated $45 million and has a 10-year payback under conservative assumptions. Although EcoLine has a steep upfront cost, the long-term energy savings will be considerable.
The university currently uses natural gas for generating electricity and heat, which has seen considerable price increases in the last decade. Fossil fuels by nature can have volatile prices, which fluctuate based on demand or after a natural disaster slows production. These challenges can be avoided by using landfill gas from Turnkey.
The environmental impacts of this project are equally impressive. . “We will actually be realizing a substantial absolute decrease in our greenhouse gas emissions,” said UNH President, Mark Huddleston. “Our greenhouse gas emissions will actually be 57% below our 1990 levels.
Some of the benefits go beyond the walls of the university and may be difficult to quantify with percentages or dollar amounts. Many learning and research opportunities have emerged from EcoLine for students and the community. Turnkey has hosted numerous tours, demonstrating a real world application of alternative energy. Community members, students, and UNH employees were involved in many of the discussions in the planning stages of EcoLine.
The excitement around this project is particularly noteworthy and speaks to a widespread desire to find solutions to environmental challenges. “Students are proud to be at an institution that is doing this,” said UNH President, Mark Huddleston. “We have already seen a recruitment advantage for us. Students want to be associated with an institution that takes sustainable energy and climate issues as seriously as we do at UNH.”
Beyond the Durham campus and community, EcoLine and other innovative energy practices at UNH are serving as a model. According to Robert W. Varney, Regional Administrator for the EPA New England office, “when EPA officials talk to energy managers at colleges and universities across New Hampshire, they point to UNH as an example of what can be done and how to do it.”
The Challenges of EcoLine
A project of this magnitude certainly comes with some stumbling blocks along the way, which explains why there is a $45 million price tag attached. Constructing a 12.7 mile pipeline that passes through four communities, across wetlands, and over two bridges is not an easy feat. It was essential to hold public hearings, brief the communities on the project, and obtain wetland permits.
Landfill gas has a relatively low energy content and contains contaminants. Once the gas reaches the university, it needs to be purified and the energy content is increased. After the gas leaves the processing plant, it will have very low levels of pollutants and can power the university cogenerator.
The Future of Energy
The energy landscape is changing across the globe. Many forms of renewable energy are decreasing in price and increasing in efficiency. Researchers have developed ways to make transportation fuels from garbage and agricultural waste. More than one million Toyota Prius hybrid cars have been sold and plug-in electric vehicles are being developed and hitting the market. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are now common because of their efficient use of energy. Concern about greenhouse gas emissions is increasing and many people see global warming as one of the largest issues facing humanity.
As we are required to change the way we use energy, academic institutions play a leading role in shaping the future. The perspective of UHN will be instrumental in forging the way.
“We look constantly for other ways to push the envelope,” said Mark Huddleston. “It is built into the DNA of this place, and people are always looking for alternatives. We will look regularly and creatively for things even beyond EcoLine to advance the cause.”