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Green Gas, Cool Wind

Alternative energy takes off at the Ada County landfill and at Boise State

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The price of a gallon of gas: $2, give or take a few quarters. The lifespan of that gallon's homeland reserve: limited. Your heating and energy bill: likely higher than ever.

Discouraging, isn't it? Now take a look at your trash can. Yes, the trash can. Do you see a bucket of eco-friendly energy? That's what some green-thinking folks see. Within a matter of months, that trash could join the likes of the sun and wind as renewable, efficient ways to warm the winter chill. High gas prices and limited fossil fuel sources have some local researchers and entrepreneurs looking at novel wind and waste technologies as the wave of our energy future. And that wave starts at the local landfill.

If you've ever taken the grand tour of the Ada County Hidden Hollow trash cemetery, you may have noticed a large flame burning ... and burning. That's all the flame does, actually. Forget about warming your home or a cooking a hot dinner with it. It simply burns off the methane gas created as the surrounding trash decomposes. But beginning this week, that flame takes on a whole new--and green--purpose.

"Rather than burning, that gas it will be put to good use," says Dave Neal, who keeps his eye on the flame as the Ada County landfill director.

Plans by Atlanta-based G2 Energy, LLC, to construct a landfill gas-to-energy system that taps into the power potential of that flame took off at a ground-breaking on Monday. As early as May 2006, G2 plans to be selling that energy to Idaho Power--perhaps up to 3.2 megawatts, or enough to power several thousand homes, and all from heaps of trash. The project's developers call methane gas produced by landfills an untapped and bountiful energy source--a similar perspective to what some Boise State researchers hold for the wind.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded Boise State $500,000 to fund the research and development of technologies aimed at reducing the cost of producing energy on wind farms. The funds are part of the 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act and are also slated to fund fellowships within the Engineering Department.

"I was surprised how little (universities) are engaged in this kind of research . . .There's nothing like gas at $3 a gallon to get people thinking about it," says John Gardner, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering at Boise State.

Natural gas prices have risen steadily over the last three years and at some point, more that doubled, according to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. That makes the wind look pretty good, says Gardner, who will oversee the grant. "There is a great deal of potential here to develop a research facility with unique capabilities in Southwest Idaho that will support economic growth in this area."

If you're familiar with the winds of Wyoming or Montana, the force of Idaho winds may not seem like much. And for a large wind farm operation, Southern Idaho may not be the most productive or lucrative place to set up shop. The economic viability of working in Idaho has kept many potential small energy producers out of the power business. Some area dairy farmers want to use the methane gas produced by decomposing cow manure to not only add power to the grid but to lessen the stench of waste on their farms and thus help downwind neighbors breathe a little easier. But the capital costs associated with installing the anaerobic digester needed to harness and convert the methane gas into energy keeps most small- to medium-scale dairy farmers out of the power producing business.

Mid-sized landfills tend to produce more methane gas than medium to small-sized dairy farms making landfills such as Hidden Hollow too potentially lucrative for energy investors to ignore. Or as Nick King, G2 Energy managing member puts it, "There's a bigger bang for the buck."

Economic viability remains an issue with small wind farmers in areas where the winds tend to blow gently. The Boise State grant aims to find solutions to the expense associated with wind energy by dedicating funds to studying viable technologies that could capture the energy potential of Idaho's low- to moderate- velocity winds.

Gardner says it may be some time before the efforts of the Boise State researchers hit the power grid, but once they do, the benefits of their work could be measured by more than kilowatts.

"By developing sustainable, distributed energy sources, we can reduce greenhouse gases, improve local economies and even increase energy independence," he says.

The planet-friendly benefits of the landfill gas-to-energy generator also goes beyond trapping energy potential that would otherwise go to waste, says King.

G2 Energy is installing and maintaining the Hidden Hollow landfill gas-to-energy generator at no cost to taxpayers. And King says that in the future, we can expect a reduction in unpleasant odors at the landfill and a decline in the dump's emissions of the type of greenhouse gasses that stick around the Valley as inversions this time of year. Other green benefits include:

• Improved power quality for customers.

• Elimination of explosion threats.

• And as long as we fill those trash cans, gas-to-energy generators produce a renewable energy resource.

And according to King, the Hidden Hollow generator will offer benefits green thinkers consider priceless: The pollution-reduction equivalent of 32,000 cars taken off the road; 720 railcars of coal not used. And perhaps most importantly right now, the number of barrels of oil spared annually: 340,000.

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