Question and Answer

QUESTION: Are there any renewable energy projects in Sonoma County?


ANSWER: Absolutely – did you know we make energy from rotting garbage? There’s a renewable energy facility located off Meecham Road at the county dump; landfill gasses are captured from the small mountain of garbage and transformed into electricity.


From landfill gasses alone, this County-operated plant has generated 7.5 megawatts of electricity a day - enough to meet the power demands of 7,000 households. That could power the entire town of Windsor.

This renewable energy production method is called methane capture. It not only creates electricity but eliminates a dangerous greenhouse gas: methane, which is 21x more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Methane and CO2 are both emitted from rotting garbage. At landfills, the scraps from that fabulous dinner you almost finished, together with tons of other organic wastes, slowly decompose. As this matter breaks down, it generates methane and CO2 (along with a small percentage of other nasty gases).

Landfill managers can reduce or eliminate methane emissions in one of two ways, either by burning it off with a flare, or building a power plant and combusting the methane to generate electricity. Building the structure to maintain a flare might cost a half million, while a power plant might cost $10 million, as did the plant on Meecham Road.

So if these plants are so expensive what’s the incentive to build them? Well, because once they’re built the landfill generates revenue from selling the electricity. In addition, this renewable energy means that less energy has to be produced from sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear. And finally, these plants prevent a particularly bad greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.

If this is such a great form of renewable energy why don’t more landfills have power plants? Well, two main reasons. The first is that even though regulatory groups recognize that landfill gas power plants reduce CO2 and methane emissions, they still regulate these plants as if they were any other fossil fuel or natural gas plants.  This drives up the cost of regulatory compliance. The second reason is that historically only large landfills have been required to eliminate methane.  If a landfill is relatively small, they just have to put in a pipe so the methane can escape and prevent any gas explosions (minor detail). But this may be changing.

Under California’s latest regulations, all landfills may be required to eliminate methane by burning it or capturing it for power production. This progress in regulatory oversight may also help make methane capture a more cost-effective energy source. We’ll keep you updated!