By Carvan Craft
Five colleges are putting the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” into practice with their initiative to use landfill gas for light and power. Hollins University, Emory & Henry College, Lynchburg College, Randolph College and Sweet Briar College are the first institutions in Virginia on track to meet all of their electricity needs with renewable energy.
Given our annual production of garbage, landfill gas is considered a renewable resource. The gas is approximately half methane and half carbon dioxide, which is harmful when it leaks into the air from a landfill. Methane has a global warming potential that is 23 times greater than carbon dioxide.
Burning landfill gas to generate electricity prevents much of this harmful methane from entering the atmosphere, but whether the gas is a truly clean energy source is disputed because it also produces air pollution.
Robert B. Lambeth Jr., president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, says that one of the college sustainability coordinators approached him with the idea of switching from conventional power to electricity generated by landfill gas. The Council embraced this idea and began working with the five participating colleges on the project in March 2013.
The schools collectively established an agreement with the green energy firm Collegiate Clean Energy — an affiliate of the landfill gas company IGENCO — to purchase their electricity directly from the firm. As part of the agreement, the schools signed a 12-year contract that they expect will save them between $3.2 million and $6.4 million during that period.
The electricity generated from the landfill gas is distributed on the local grid operated by Appalachian Power, and the schools receive Renewable Energy Certificates that represent their direct contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from conventional electricity. These green energy credits can be put on the market to be bought and traded by other groups seeking to support renewable energy.
Lambeth believes this is an excellent educational opportunity for students to learn more about renewable power companies through potential internships and tours of the landfill gas facility.
Several schools are developing other green initiatives in addition to the methane project. Four of the colleges have solar panels, three use geothermal heat pump systems and Lynchburg College heats water with solar tubes on the roof.
“The colleges obviously have a strong commitment to sustainability, climate control and using renewable energy where possible,” Lambeth says. “So this opportunity fits nicely with the goals of the colleges.”