Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest garbage hauler and landfill operator, plans to spend roughly $400 million over the next five years building facilities at 60 landfills to convert methane gas to electricity, its most ambitious renewable energy project to date.
Landfills are the largest source of methane emissions in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of such releases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Methane is the second-biggest man-made contributor to global warming behind carbon dioxide.
In an announcement Wednesday, Waste Management said it will begin building landfill gas-to-energy facilities this year in Texas, Virginia, New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, Illinois and Wisconsin.
It operates 281 landfills in North America, and 100 already have some form of methane-to-energy capabilities. The next 60 will be at the remaining landfills in Waste Management's portfolio with enough gas flow for such projects, said Paul Pabor, the company's vice president for renewable energy.
Methane gas is created by the decomposition of matter such as trash and cow manure.
"We're setting an ambitious goal to greatly expand our roster of these plants, which will help us responsibly allocate the company's resources while providing renewable power to the communities and regions in which we operate," Pabor said.
Already, Waste Management has gas-to-energy plants in places like Ferris, Texas, which generates about 6 megawatts of energy — enough to power about 6,000 homes.
The additional 60 projects are expected to add 230 megawatts of generation capacity to Waste Management's portfolio, bringing the total to 700 megawatts.
The Houston-based company sells the power to retail power providers, municipal utilities and other users.
That income, coupled in part with federal tax credits, makes the ventures lucrative, Pabor said, though he declined to provide specifics.
"There's an incremental growth aspect to all this," he said. "There's an opportunity to add income to each of these landfills where one of these power plants is going in."
In April, Waste Management said its first-quarter profit rose 19 percent to $222 million, helped by revenue growth at its commercial collection and landfill businesses and improved cost controls. The company reported sales of $13.4 billion last year.
The United States has 423 landfill gas-to-energy projects, which generate about 1,200 megawatts of power, according to the EPA. Another 560 landfills are candidates for such projects, the agency says.
At many landfills, methane gas is simply burned off, or "flared."