Where There’s Muck

Landfill Gas Industries

The use of landfill gas as fuel is not exactly new. But as concern over climate change rises in parallel to bills for conventional energy consumption, this is a technology whose time has very much come.
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Adam Bloomer is the founder and Managing Director of Landfill Gas Industries, a Brisbane-based specialist in the business of burning off the biogas that builds beneath landfill waste sites. According to Adam, the idea was developed in the US in the 1970s. It is really quite a mature industry, traditionally a ‘quiet achiever’ from a viewpoint of environmental benefit and renewable energy. It is also, he points out, one of very few forms of renewable energy that is available 24/7 – that is, not subject to the disappearance of the sun for the evening or a calm day with no wind.

The gas forms as the by-product of decomposing waste material in the landfill and continues to form for decades, so a long-established site can be drilled down to reach pockets of gas that can then be brought to the surface for various treatments, depending on what the user wants done. Capturing the gas efficiently is a careful science, but it can be much more than just environmentally friendly and can earn a site owner – usually a municipal authority, though there are also privately owned sites – useful money by returning the energy generated to the grid.

Australia has thus far lagged in adopting such techniques for reuse of energy, says Adam, not least because of its wide-open spaces and the – at least perceived – notion that land is cheap and available to chuck rubbish into. Adam even says “Queensland is probably the least mature state in Australia as regards landfill gas capture, but even so, probably half the sites in the state use some form of capture and reuse.” This is, as we might say, a slow burner, something most ratepayers just don’t see or know about. As a proportion of all energy generated throughout the country, landfill gas is quite low. “In addition, it doesn’t have the visual aspect of something like a big wind turbine or a solar energy system. But a moderately sized landfill application can generate enough gas to power one or two thousand homes, so it is still a substantial amount of electricity.” Australian expertise in landfill-gas-to-power is growing, and Adam emphasises that the company seeks to involve other local businesses, such as ERDS consultants, who are also developing the industry.

Landfill Gas Industries was established in 2009; Adam already had a number of years’ experience in the waste and landfill gas industry. “I always enjoyed the landfill gas aspect and knew it was a niche market,” he explains. “I was looking forward to just getting out there and getting my hands dirty in landfill gas services. But it grew into rather more than that and I realised that if I wanted to keep the customers we had, we would have to get into power generation. It just expanded from there.”

The company works with carbon-offset users to secure long term agreements for the purchase of Kyoto-approved carbon credits generated by its projects. It sits on the technical advisory group that assists the government in development of landfill gas methodologies under the Carbon Farming Initiative and offers custom designed landfill gas extraction systems for landfills of all capacities, offering cost effective solutions due to direct supply agreement from manufacturers.

Some 90 per cent of customers are local government. Shires such as Brisbane City, Dubbo, Fraser Coast, Bundaberg, and Gladstone all use installations from Landfill Gas Industries, although Landfill Gas Industries has installations as far afield as Tasmania and Victoria too. Typically the company will first design a collection system, and then install it. “We have our own construction crew and drill rig, drilling vertical wells into the waste mass to extract the gas, all of which comes from the anaerobic decomposition of the waste,” says Adam. This waste continues to make gas for a very long time; “if you shut all the landfills today, they would be making gas for decades to come. These are hardly short-term ventures.”

Most of the technology involved is European, because in Europe the population density is such that landfill sites are expensive. Adam says many people in Australia – and many waste technology specialists from Europe too – still fail to comprehend this simple fact. Many alternative waste treatment plants need a quarter million tonnes of waste per year to be cost-effective, which is a lot of rubbish, and because of the geography, waste then has to be transported many kilometres to site to make it work, making the overall environmental equation far more murky. “In southeast Queensland, especially, we have lots of empty big holes from things like open-cut coal mining relatively close to the metropolitan area and it is incredibly cheap” to use them as landfill sites. “They are extremely well managed and a lot of investment goes into most of them, but at the end of the day the airspace doesn’t cost them very much.”

Landfill Gas Industries’ service has two elements: first, if it is decided that a specific site has sufficient potential for an installation, the company can put together an offer that will cost the council either very little or nothing to run. Alternatively, “some councils choose to own their infrastructure, which is completely up to them; then they pay us to install a system and supply a flaring unit, operate it, and maintain it for them. They own the rights to the gas, and we can assist them with the process of obtaining carbon credits or any other benefits.” The company is quite happy with either procedure, given that it provides a more diversified income stream.

The company designs, manufactures, and installs its own range of state-of-the-art flares, designed by Adam and incorporating his “unique combination of practical experience in the field, qualifications as an electrical fitter mechanic, passion for engineering and business management experience”. The installations are not maintenance-free but depend on regular, scheduled monitoring by a technician to ensure systems are working well and meeting performance requirements; monitoring is taken care of by the company itself. There is, it hardly needs to be added, no release of harmful methane to air and Landfill Gas Industries receives credits for destruction of methane in the process of flaring.

Is there much in the way of competition? A firm “no” is Adam’s immediate response. “In each area, either build-own-operate or build-operate, we have very few competitors. We enjoy a good success rate on tendering, which keeps us busy, and we don’t miss out on many projects we really want.” The company has reached a point where it can take a careful look at the long-term viability of any given project, without needing to grab every single opportunity.

Efforts are under way to reduce the amount of material thrown into landfills. More efficient recycling, compacting, and re-use of much material means the spread of such sites will be limited in decades to come. But Adam does not believe there will come a time in the foreseeable future when his company’s operations are curtailed by a lack of available rubbish. “In the far future, we could be an endangered species; indeed I hope we are, on a personal level, if the world can move away from putting things in the ground. But the reality is that in Australia there are such cheap landfill options – especially in Queensland. What might affect us is more efficient organic waste collection and treatment, but unfortunately so far it has been only moderately successful and quite expensive, while the conversion rate is not as high as it needs to be [to make it competitive]. So I think there is plenty to go round and even with good recycling, there will be waste material to produce gas for power generation. A well-managed landfill is not a bad thing.”

Strategic Resources

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November 19, 2017, 10:58 PM AEDT

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