Waste Management's Filthy Clean Energy

Last Updated Aug 20, 2007 6:17 PM EDT

Waste Management garbage truckIf you think taking out the garbage is a real drag, think again. Waste Management raked in more than $13 billion in revenues last year, making it the largest provider of waste management services on the continent. Its core business is your garbage, which it retrieves and transports to one of the 281 landfills it operates. And despite the unglamorous nature of the trash business, Waste Management sees big opportunities for game-changing innovation. The company just announced a major expansion of its fledgling landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) business, with plans to generate a total of 700 megawatts at 60 of its landfills within the next five years -- enough juice to light up 700,000 homes. The initiative represents a big strategic move into the energy industry at a time when demand for renewable energy is growing fast. The company's press release on CNN Money explains the business motivation and technical workings:
The LFGTE initiative [...] will position the company to serve the growing market for renewable energy. In recent years, consumer awareness of environmental issues and ambitious state Renewable Portfolio Standards have quickly increased demand for new sources of renewable energy. LFGTE projects are especially valuable to utilities because they provide dependable base load power, in contrast to the intermittent nature of other renewable energy sources.
Landfill gas, produced when microorganisms break down organic material in the landfill, is comprised of approximately 50-60 percent methane and 40-50 percent carbon dioxide. At most landfills in the United States, these greenhouse gases are simply burned off, or "flared." However, Waste Management sites that have LFGTE facilities collect the methane and use it to fuel on-site engines or turbines, generating electricity to power surrounding homes and neighborhoods while creating a new revenue stream for the landfills.
Forgetting about any environmental benefits whatsoever, Waste Management's initiative is remarkable because it turns a business liability (piles of trash) into a revenue-generating asset that will springboard the company into a new industry altogether. If only those so-called "innovative" tech start-ups could be so resourceful.

(Image of Waste Management Garbage Truck by Diaper, CC 2.0)