March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Legislation decried by environmental groups may soon legalize methane production via grass clippings

MONDAY, May 21 — Michigan banned throwing away yard waste in neighborhood trash bins 17 years ago because of concerns about landfill space. Now, though, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to limit the ban to allow for the creation of alternative energy.

Similar bills have been sponsored and supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

The legislation, HB4265 and HB4266, would allow Michiganians to throw their grass clippings away after mowing their lawns. The grass would be collected by a landfill company and used to produce methane gas for electricity by capturing the landfill gas that is released as it decomposes.

We’re not overturning the ban,” said Rep. Paul Opsommer, the bill sponsor, in an email, R-Dewitt. “The bills would allow this only for those landfills that will use a gas collection system and then create alternative energy from it.  The ban is still in place for all the other landfills.”

Landfill gas is constantly created at dumpsites. The breakdown of trash releases methane gas that is then captured or “flared” off by burning it. The law would expand the practice of landfill gas capture by specifically allowing the grass to be used for gas production.

The job debate

Those opposing the laws say the legislation would hurt jobs in Michigan while those on the other side of the fence say jobs would be created.

Companies like Lansing’s own Granger would stand to greatly benefit from the laws, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The legislation would spell “guaranteed bankruptcy” for many small composting businesses in Michigan who use grass clippings as their main raw material for fertilizer, Clift said, the move by landfills is to essentially eliminate their compost competition.

There are 75 registered composting facilities in Michigan, said, Kevin Korpi with Acuitas, a Lansing lobbying firm representing the US Composting Council.

Granger also builds methane capture equipment around the Great Lakes Region, said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director for the Michigan Recycling Coalition, so they stand to gain a lot of profit from expanded landfill gas production.

The EPA estimates that a 3 megawatt facility would create five construction jobs and have a ripple effect of 20 to 26 jobs, said Tonia Olson, director of governmental and community relations. Those jobs include engineers, environmental compliance workers, plant managers, maintenance staff and consultants. Most facilities operate at 10 megawatts, she said.

Tackling environmental issues

Landfill gas capture is supported by both the MEC and MRC but only because it naturally occurs during the decomposition process and it’s better than allowing its free release into the environment.

Both O’Brien and Clift said intentionally using yard waste to produce the gas is dangerous and only adds to harmful emissions because methane is a potent greenhouse gas—20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

O’Brien and Korpi said landfill gas collection systems are not efficient at collecting the gas. The EPA states that landfill gas energy projects captures 60 percent to 90 percent of the gas released.

“The number one reason is our interest in increasing renewable energy production in Michigan landfills,” Olson said. “We started the conversation because we have customers that want more renewable energy.”

The Lansing Board of Water and Light is one of those customers she said. Their retail sales are made up of more than 5 percent landfill gas and that number would increase if the legislation were passed.

Granger owns and operates two landfills in Lansing and is the developer of 16 landfill gas-to-energy projects around the Great Lakes region, eight of them are in Michigan.

Landfill gas is considered a renewable energy source at the state and federal level. The unique thing about landfill gas, Olson said, is that unlike other renewable energy, landfill gas is a “baseload power” meaning production and collection happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week for every day of the year.

Landfill gas would help further Michigan from reliance on coal for energy production, Opsommer said.

Increasing landfill gas production is “an extension of the renewable portfolio standard — RPS — laws that were passed last session,” Opsommer said in an email. “That law was about much more than just solar and wind, it specifically included landfill gas as an alternative energy.”

The RPS is the percentage of Michigan’s energy that is required to come from alternative sources other than coal production. By 2025 the percentage needs to be at 25 percent.

Saving money and soil

If 10 percent of all yard waste in the state was returned to a landfill gas facility and the production peak for that facility was 2.2 megawatts of electricity, that would be enough energy to power 1400 households, Olson said regarding a study Granger conducted on the energy potential of landfill gas. Out of the 49 active landfills in the state, 31 of them are landfill gas production stations. Based on the study scenario over 43,000 homes could be provided with electricity from landfill gas alone.

While yard waste can increase methane production, doing so only captures a fraction of the value of the yard waste if it is used in other ways,” said John Biernbaum, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, during his Senate committee testimony last week.

The organic matter held in yard clippings holds carbon energy that can be used for electricity but more important for soil fertility, he said.

“While there is a growing movement to capture that energy in the form of biofuels like methane and ethanol … . The other essential value in … yard waste is the minerals that are biologically recycled for future plant growth,” he said. “By placing organic matter in a landfill, the essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and many others are lost and wasted.”

On the other hand, the Michigan Municipal League has voiced their support for the legislation, saying that many communities would benefit from reduced energy costs and decreased trash collection costs.

What’s next?

The legislation passed through the House by a 67 to 40 vote and is scheduled for an additional Senate committee hearing on May 29. Clift said they hope to stop the legislation when it comes up for a vote in the Senate.