The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Sandra DeMent
For The Sentinel 

The landfill legacy: power for the people

 

November 29, 2017



This is the second of two articles growing out of a review of the Roosevelt Regional Landfill and its contributions to Klickitat County. The Roosevelt landfill has been operating for 25 years, and is described as a partnership between the County, the KPUD and Republic Services. This article focuses on the Klickitat Public Utility District (KPUD), the operator of the Harold W. Hill Landfill Gas Project that is at the heart of the Roosevelt landfill.

For 30 years, the guiding spirit of the project was Harold Hill, a Goldendale farmer who became a KPUD Commissioner in 1974. In the ’70s nationally, the polluted Cuyahoga River had caught fire (again), the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed by Congress, and Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Changes began to be felt in Klickitat County, beginning with the formation of the Columbia Gorge Commission in 1986 and the necessity of moving the Horsethief Landfill outside of the Gorge’s scenic area boundary by 1990.

Klickitat County contracted with Rabanco in 1989 for the creation of a large regional landfill. Plans and environmental impact statements were submitted, amended and updated, challenged and litigated, appealed and finally resolved five years later by the Washington Supreme Court in 1994.Under the terms of the contract, Klickitat County retained the rights to the landfill gas, which they then granted to KPUD.

From the beginning, the idea of generating landfill gas was part of the project. The process begins with the dumping of 8,000 tons of trash daily, which is then crushed and compacted further by huge DC 10 Caterpillar tractors with 15 inch spikes on their treads. The trash is rolled over four to 10 times by the machines, to compact and remove air from the landfill. When compacted, a cubic yard weighs nearly a ton.

The compacted trash is then worked on—for years—by billions of microorganisms that thrive only in the absence of oxygen. These are the same organisms that exist in a cow’s gut, and in ours. Remember that plastic peanut butter jar you threw in the trash? The microbes will eat it, jar and all. The end product of all their work is methane, a gas that consists of 50 percent natural gas, 40 percent carbon dioxide, and 10 percent nitrogen and other elements. There is a vast network of pipes buried at all levels in the landfill, accessed by 260 wells, to collect the gas.

A quarter of a mile away, huge fans with 24-foot blades suck the methane gas oh-so-carefully out of the landfill. The air pressure in the landfill is exquisitely sensitive and monitored every second of every day, even factoring in weather for changes in air pressure. If the fans pull too strongly, they will pull in air, which kills the anaerobic microbes and creates the risk of a landfill fire, since the other product of the microbe-assisted decomposition is heat. If the fans don’t pull hard enough, methane gas escapes from the landfill and gets noticed by the EPA and state agencies. Methane is one of the worst greenhouse gases, so engineers sit in front of a NASA-like bank of computer screens 24 hours a day, monitoring pressure and controlling the fans and the turbines that burn the gas.

KPUD originally installed five two-megawatt gas turbines to burn the gas and create electricity, most of which is sold to California. Each megawatt of electricity can power 1,000 homes for a month, on average. In 2005, when rates were still high, plans were launched to expand the electricity-generating capacity of the landfill, by adding turbines to create 26 additional megawatts and by upgrading the equipment to produce fewer emissions. Alas, the new capacity came on line in 2011, when the price of natural gas had plunged almost in half, due to the development of natural gas fields in Wyoming and the Dakotas.

As a result, the new revenue wasn’t enough to pay both for operating costs and for the new equipment. Today, approximately 30 percent of the average Klickitat County electric bill goes to pay the debt on the upgrades. KPUD Commissioner Doug Miller, newly elected on a platform to find out why Klickitat County’s electric rates are so high, recently authored an article on the back page of Ruralite, KPUD’s ratepayer magazine, letting us know how happy he is in his new position and what a great job everyone is doing.

Miller’s article also included three sentences about the latest KPUD project to salvage the revenue potential of the landfill gas. The new plan, which takes effect in 2018, is to stop generating electricity and instead sell the gas, scrubbed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other contaminants directly into the natural gas Market. KPUD’s partner in the new venture is BP (formerly British Petroleum), which plans to sell the gas to municipalities and fleet operators of CNG vehicles. “The best part,” he writes, “is that in the future, we will have the ability to either provide renewable energy as a green gas or use that same gas to provide electricity for ourselves or in the marketplace.”

This time, KPUD is trying to protect ratepayers by requiring BP to pay a fixed price for two thirds of the gas collected for five years. The initial fixed price is expected to cover KPUD’s operating costs and the additional debt--$35 million—needed to scrub the gas and deliver it to the Williams natural gas pipeline about a mile away from the landfill. After five years, BP and Klickitat County will divide the project revenue at Market prices. The Board of Adjustment is holding a hearing on the expansion project on Dec. 4 at 7 pm at the Klickitat County Courthouse, Commissioners Meeting Room, 205 South Columbus, Goldendale.

KPUD’s goals and performance are beyond the scope of this article. But, if the Roosevelt gas project generates the expected revenues, KPUD will next decide whether to use the funds to retire the existing debt more quickly, or use it for other projects. What would Harold Hill do?

 

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