How Clean Energy and Waste Management turn trash into green fuel

Modern society makes a lot of garbage. The decomposition of organic material from garbage in landfills releases methane gas, a potent global warming pollutant.

At the same time, the modern transportation system is powered mostly by fossil fuels and also releases global warming and toxic air pollution. Today, two California companies are turning rotting lemons (garbage) into lemonade (low carbon fuels for cars and trucks), and are showing that AB 32 creates a powerful incentive for new ideas and innovations.

Although the ultimate solution to the problem of waste generation and pollution from landfills must include reduction of waste going into the landfills, the fact is landfills aren't going anywhere any time soon.

Many landfills combust methane from their garbage in onsite flares or engines, or vent it through carbon absorption systems. This release of combusted methane adds to the negative public health and climate impacts of the sites.

Clean Energy and Waste Management Inc. are looking to change traditional management of landfill gas, deploying an innovation that can help reduce pollution from the transportation sector and lead to reduced landfill emissions. Both companies are capturing landfill gas and turning it into an economically valuable commodity that displaces gasoline and diesel fuel from the economy. Also, provided that leaks are prevented when the landfill gas is captured, processed and distributed to consumers, the work of these two companies can help the climate and help California reach its pollution reductions goals. In addition, because processed landfill burns much cleaner than petroleum based fuels, using it in cars and trucks can result in cleaner air and other public health benefits.

Clean Energy produces a fuel named Redeem, available in either compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas. Redeem is produced at landfills outside California and then pumped into pipelines for use in the state. The company has built and operates three biomethane facilities and estimates they will have 10 plants owned by third parties throughout the U.S. by the year's end. The low carbon fuel receives carbon credits from the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard when it is used in the state, creating an opportunity for additional value.

Waste Management, Inc., in partnership with Linde North America, a gases and engineering company, built a facility in 2009 at the Altamont Landfill in Altamont, Calif., which produces liquefied natural gas from biomethane. Of about 1,500 natural gas trucks that Waste Management has in its fleet, approximately half use the renewable liquefied natural gas. Where possible, Waste Management also makes liquefied natural gas available to the public. In total, according to Waste Management, the Altamont Landfill is responsible for 33,000 tons of CO2 reductions per year, the equivalent of eliminating emissions from nearly 7,000 passenger vehicles.

According to company representatives, one of the biggest reasons for their massive investments is California's global warming law, AB 32. According to Harrison Clay, president of Clean Energy Renewable Fuels, "our company has seen significant sales in California because of programs like AB 32 and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard — policies like these that put a price on carbon make Clean Energy's Redeem a winner."

Waste Management tells a similar story. As Chuck White, director of regulatory affairs at Waste Management states, their fuel generates credits for sale in the Low Carbon Fuel Standard market and their customers — residential, commercial and government agencies alike — appreciate that the trucks that collect their waste are emitting significantly fewer harmful greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fleets.

Other stakeholders are taking note of the good work that Waste Management and Clean Energy are doing. According to Julia Levin, executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California, "The work by Clean Energy and Waste Management on biomethane is a triple win for California. They are demonstrating that we can produce clean-burning natural gas fuel that significantly cuts greenhouse gas emissions, reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and cleans up our air, while simultaneously closing the loop on waste."

In addition to reducing pollution through new technology, Waste Management and Clean Energy are showing leadership in other areas. Along with EDF, both companies are participating in a study led by West Virginia University to measure methane leakage from natural gas vehicles and fueling stations, the results of which are expected to be submitted for publication this summer.  

This article originally appeared as part of EDF's Innovators Series. CNG image by mrfiza via Shutterstock.