By: Ashlee Forman, Blaine County Sustainability Fellow
Turning trash into energy? It may sound like some too good to be true eco-fantasy, but with today’s technology and the commitment of an innovative solid waste district, the seemingly impossible has become a reality in Burley, Idaho.
Many of us are familiar with carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant human-activity-generated greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses get their name from the effect they have on our atmosphere in that they trap heat. You can think of the earth’s atmosphere as a thin blanket. It protects and insulates our planet by allowing life-supporting conditions like warm temperatures and oxygen-rich air to stay close to the surface. When greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are emitted, that blanket becomes thicker and thicker. Trapping more and more heat near the earth’s surface acts like a thick blanket would to a body.
WHAT IS METHANE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Methane is a far less commonly talked about gas compared to CO2, but in terms of its heat-trapping abilities, it is more powerful. One of the many ways that methane is released into the atmosphere is by the decomposition of waste in landfills. Just as humans release CO2 when they exhale, certain bacteria release methane as they help to decompose the waste in our landfills. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “The methane emissions from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills in 2020 were approximately equivalent to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from about 20.3 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or the CO2 emissions from nearly 11.9 million homes’ energy use for one year”. 
TURNING WASTE INTO ENERGY (AND MONEY)
Nate Francisco is the environmental manager for Southern Idaho Solid Waste (SISW) which serves seven counties throughout southern Idaho. Mr. Francisco is in charge of all of SISW’s environmental projects. Part of his job includes finding ways to improve Milner Butte Landfill’s environmental outcomes and maximize the efficiency of the operation.
In 2017, a project feasibility study was completed under the direction of the SISW executive director, Josh Bartlome, and the board of directors, including Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen. The study evaluated technologies that would capture the methane gas being produced by the landfill and turn it into a source of renewable energy. After exploring several options, they settled on a landfill gas-to-energy system that converts the captured gas into electricity via specially designed generators.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Layers upon layers of pipelines weave underground throughout the Milner Butte landfill. These pipes capture the gasses released by the decomposing trash and transport them to two, soon to be three, 1,300-kilowatt generators. These generators burn the captured greenhouse gasses to create electricity. The electricity generated is purchased by Idaho Power Company and used to power nearby homes. Once the third generator is installed, the landfill will have the capacity to produce 3.9 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 3,000 homes.
Each quarter, emissions levels are tested at the Milner Butte Landfill, and methane hotspots, areas of high methane emissions on the surface of the landfill, are identified. Wherever there's a hotspot, SISW installs more pipelines and pumps to harness the maximum amount of methane. The system is now extremely effective at trapping gasses before they are released into the atmosphere. Presently, Nate estimates that the landfill gas-to-energy system is capturing 85 percent of the methane gas produced by the landfill.
WHERE DOES THE POWER GO?
SISW also generates renewable energy certificates (RECs) for the renewable energy their landfill-gas-to-energy system produces. RECs are certificates granted to producers of renewable energy to certify ownership of the energy they create. Every one megawatt of electricity produced and put into the electric grid equals one REC. These certificates are a way to track who created the renewable energy and allow everyday electricity consumers to have the option to purchase renewable energy specifically to power their homes and businesses.
Over the course of the next twenty years, this system is estimated to generate more than $35 million in revenue. The profits are being put into a reserve fund for future projects at SISW, some of which could be focused on waste diversion and recycling. Mr. Francisco, like many others, is proud of the project’s impact and of SISW for choosing to invest so much time, energy, and money into something that will benefit the community and our planet. He also thinks that one of the most impressive aspects of the project has been the level of support provided by SISW’s board of directors chaired by Blaine County Commissioner Dick Fosbury.
“This project is an exemplary model for other landfills located in Idaho. It demonstrates that when organizations prioritize environmental stewardship and innovation they can generate significant returns for their constituents,” says Commissioner Fosbury.
ABOUT THE SOUTHERN IDAHO SOLID WASTE DISTRICT
SISW is a special purpose unit of local government whose mission is managing solid wastes for the seven South-Central Idaho counties of Blaine, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka, and Twin Falls. The SISW system currently features a state-of-the-art municipal solid waste landfill, fourteen waste transfer stations, a waste transportation system, a 3.9 MW landfill gas-to-energy facility, an effective waste diversion system, public information, and education network, and a special waste management system for problem wastes. Learn more at www.sisw.org.
 Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Basic Information About Landfill Gas. EPA. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas