Transforming Trash into Energy

by Scott Martin on November 20, 2014

Gundersen Health Systems landfill gas-to-energy projectAlthough energy collection is possible from sources like sun and wind, these natural options don’t generate renewable energy as consistently as another abundant component of our everyday life.

What’s this less glamorous resource? Trash — buried, decaying, we-don’t-ever-want-to-see-that-stuff-again trash.

Our garbage is the perfect source of renewable energy because the gas flow in landfills is consistent: it’s generated morning, afternoon and night. Unlike solar and wind power, which are burdened with climate and weather restrictions, landfills generate fuel all day, every day without dependence on sunshine or breezy conditions.

It’s reliable, renewable energy that works.

Today, landfill gas — methane produced when organic material decomposes — feeds a market need as energy suppliers seek innovative solutions to meet renewable energy demands from the governments, utilities and consumers.

With more than 2,000 landfills handing municipal waste across the country, most sites allow the gas to escape naturally, while others collect the gas through piping and transport it to flare stations to be burned off.

Similar to carbon dioxide, methane is a significant landfill byproduct, one that traps heat at a rate 25 times higher than its fellow greenhouse gas.

This dual benefit of emissions reductions and renewable energy generation is causing a growing number of landfills to serve as opportunistic power plants and fuel-producing fields. Municipalities, utilities and manufacturers increasingly recognize the pervasive gas as a valuable raw material, capable of fulfilling various energy needs.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) nearly 600 landfills across the nation have launched gas-to-energy projects, and another 550 sites are candidates to have methane recovered and harvested. These projects alone are capable of providing enough energy to power more than 716,000 homes.

A Healthy Partnership

One example is the Gundersen Health System (pictured above) in La Crosse, Wis., where a landfill gas system generates clean, renewable energy that creates revenue to support a sustainability-focused health system. This partnership provides substantial savings and increases environmental awareness for everyone involved.

When completed in 2012, the system began converting the landfill’s source stream — about 300 cubic feet of methane per minute — into enough electricity and thermal heat to answer all energy needs of Gundersen’s Onalaska Campus, including:

  • A six-story clinic housing physicians’ offices, patient visits, outpatient surgeries and related services.
  • A four-story office building for staffers in support services — human resources, accounting and maintenance.

The buildings cover 350,000 square feet, and every inch is heated, lighted and energized by the electricity and heat from a Jenbacher JMC 416 reciprocating engine running on landfill gas.

Rather than burning its unwanted methane, the La Crosse County Landfill collects and pipes the gas under Interstate 90 to the heavy-duty power generator. Heat produced by the engine is also used to warm water, which circulates throughout the health campus.

Thanks to the project, Gundersen’s Onalaska Campus is energy independent and accounts for 11 percent of the health care system’s utility load, which includes more than 50 clinics, three hospitals and four nursing homes in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Projects like this improve the environment in our communities and help lower the cost of health care by reducing energy costs. But as successful as they are, converting landfill gas to energy isn’t for everyone. Some landfills are too small to yield cost-efficient projects; others can’t cut costs enough to compete with other renewables. In some instances, government and utility incentives for alternative energy aren’t sufficient for landfill owners to consider landfill gas a viable option.

But conditions change, and technologies evolve. And some of the most market-sensitive businesses already use landfill gas to fuel manufacturing operations, including BMW, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors. And interest is accelerating.

What do you think about the use of landfill gases? Do you see a successful future for gas-to-energy systems? We’d love to know what you think!

Scott Martin is a senior mechanical engineer in Burns & McDonnell’s Environmental Division. He specializes in landfill gas-to-energy and other landfill projects.

Other Resources on This Topic:

Benchmark: Turning Waste to Power

Partnerships Boost Landfill’s Long-Term Health


lean six sigma process improvementLean Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology adopted by many manufacturing organizations to improve their bottom line and customer experience. While Lean Six Sigma has more than proven its worth as a management technique to achieve maximum efficiency, it has many applications beyond manufacturing.

The program can help streamline everything from city government processes to managing health care services. Here’s a look at how:

City Government Applications

Government entities are notorious for delays in approving things like permits, which can affect city coffers. It can be up to six months from the time an application is filed to the time the permit is granted. Using Lean Six Sigma to evaluate the permit application process can help identify inefficiencies.

Take the City of Denver, for example, which used the rigorous analysis provided by Lean Six Sigma to train its staff to become more responsive and timely in helping businesses and residents. Our analysis looked at how much time city staffers actually spent working on a permit, and found it could be as few as 40 hours. Shrinking that review period from months to weeks, or even days is what Lean Six Sigma is all about.

By identifying the touch points where people are actually working on the permit while minimizing the wasted weeks of inactivity, it creates a value stream that makes the process work much more efficiently — and faster.

It leads to a better-run city and an increase in revenues. The quicker a city gets projects up and running, the quicker it will see revenue. It’s also a competitive edge. If Fort Worth, for example, is notorious for being slow to approve permits and Dallas is quicker, a developer may opt to build in Dallas.

Health Care Delivery

When it comes to hospitals, laboratories and other components of our health care system, Lean Six Sigma can prescribe a far better approach the delivery of services.

First, it can reduce the response time of doctors and other medical professionals when a patient arrives in the emergency room.

When it comes to lab work, Lean Six Sigma can help establish priorities. The process allows lab technicians to determine which tests need to be completed quickly to provide a fast diagnosis for a sick patient versus routine tests that can wait longer.

Data collection through the Lean Six Sigma program can help hospitals identify trouble spots to mitigate accidents. It can even be applied to organizing the layout of equipment in a room to maximize efficiency and reduce the required space. For example, we use cut-out dimensions of hospital equipment to determine what layout works best.

Lean Six Sigma Proves Value Quickly

The program works in just about any industry, and practitioners can prove its value with a hands-on demonstration in a short amount of time. I recently visited a client site where a previous consultant had failed to show any substantial results over a significant period of time. After just six weeks, they saw what happens when Lean Six Sigma was applied, and they immediately changed directions. Results like this make adopting Lean Six Sigma strategies a no-brainer for many businesses.

Moving forward, Lean Six Sigma should be an attractive analytical approach to companies and organizations seeking a master plan for their current operations and a strategic plan looking to their future. The master planning enabled by the process helps organizations develop the most efficient way to operate.

Lean Six Sigma also allows a company to identify where it wants to be over the next five or 10 years and provides a way to measure its progress towards that vision. The process can help determine whether the company is properly aligned as an organization to pursue its vision. It gets people moving in the same direction, and everyone gets on board with that.

Have you seen Lean Six Sigma applied outside of a manufacturing setting? If so, what kind of results did you see? Feel free to comment in the box below. I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like to learn more about how Lean Six Sigma might work for your organization, let’s connect on LinkedIn.

Michael Glavin is a Lean Six Sigma practitioner at Burns & McDonnell who specializes in master planning, lean manufacturing and optimization for customer demand. He has spent more than 25 years working with commercial and defense companies driving continuous improvements throughout their organizations. Want to learn more about what Lean Six Sigma can do for your organization? Connect with Michael on LinkedIn.


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