Martinsville unlocks power of landfill trash

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Print this page by Tara Bozick

Martinsville isn’t letting 1.7 million tons of trash in its closed landfill go to waste.

In February, the city switched on a generator to produce 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power up to 1,000 homes, by burning methane gas seeping from its landfill in Henry County during the next 10 years. This gas is a result of bacteria breaking down 33 years worth of organic municipal sludge and household waste.

“This is using a resource that was just lying there and was going to be a liability to the city and turning it into something good, something that has value: power from trash,” says Leon Towarnicki, Martinsville’s interim city manager.

The $2.5 million project became feasible thanks to $1 million in federal stimulus money awarded through the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

The new power source comes at a time when the city’s electric rate more than doubled in a new contract with American Municipal Power.  Towarnicki projects the city’s $1.5 million investment would be paid back through electricity cost savings in less than five years with the generator running 24/7 at 95 percent capacity.

The city also can sell carbon credits the project earns for removing methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. (Burning methane releases carbon dioxide and water vapor.)

One carbon credit is worth a ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. In 18 months of flaring the methane after installing a gas collection system in 2010, the city has kept the equivalent of 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, says Jeff Joyce, the assistant public works director. The city will wait to sell the carbon credits until their value increases, depending on national policy and market demand.

Martinsville is not unique in its use of methane to generate electricity. Thirty sites in Virginia and 577 across the country are operational, according to the most recent data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet, with the new Patriot Centre industrial park less than a mile away from the former landfill site, Towarnicki hopes the project demonstrates to prospective companies the city’s progressive thinking. Martinsville is trying to transform its economy after the loss of thousands of furniture and textiles manufacturing jobs in recent decades. The city, with 16.7 percent of its work force jobless in December, has the highest unemployment rate in the state.
“To me, it shows the mindset of the community in regard to how we view the future,” Towarnicki said.

By the Numbers

Martinsville methane-to-electricity landfill project:

  • $2.5 million total cost: $1 million in stimulus money, $1.5 million from city
  • 1.7 million tons of trash
  • 1.06-megawatt capacity generator
  • 800-1,000 homes powered
  • 2.5 percent of city’s electricity needs
  • $400,000-$500,000 annual savings in electricity cost

Martinsville landfill facts:

  • 33-year landfill operation (1972-2005)
  • 42-acre disposal footprint
  • 180-acre site
  • 42 gas wells
  • 300 cubic feet of gas per minute (50-52 percent methane)

Source: City of Martinsville, Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki

Popularity of landfill gas energy projects:
United States: 577 operational, 509 candidate landfills
Virginia: 30 operational, 13 candidate landfills
Source: U.S. EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program database


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