With modern technology, landfill gas (LFG) that is ordinarily burned and released into the atmosphere can be captured and converted into usable energy. For waste management fleets, this represents an incredible opportunity to get ahead of ever-tightening emissions regulations, tap into new revenue streams and do some good for the environment.
How trash becomes fuel
While all sorts of material ends up in landfills, tons of organic matter are added to waste sites everyday in the US. When this organic decomposes, LFG is the natural byproduct, comprised of approximately 50 percent methane, 50 percent carbon dioxide and trace amounts of non-methane organic compounds. LFG becomes renewable natural gas (RNG) by completely rebalancing its chemical composition.
Across multiple treatment stages, specialized machinery purifies LFG by maximizing its methane content. During the initial phase, moisture is removed from the LFG and particulates are filtered out. Next, remaining contaminants such as sulfur and siloxane are eliminated and the gas is compressed. Lastly, a final round of treatment removes undesirable gasses (e.g. carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen) and the resulting RNG is compressed once again. Once fully treated, RNG is upwards of 90 percent methane, ideal for powering biogas-compatible vehicles.
Benefits of waste-to-energy conversion
Similar to the benefits of hydrogen fueled cars, converting waste into energy is a win-win-win scenario for refuse management fleets, LFG treatment companies and the Earth's climate.
Reduced fuel costs and increased revenue
To begin, we'll focus on finance. Compared to diesel, the average market price of RNG is significantly lower and more stable (i.e. less prone to volatile spikes). When combined with tax credits provided by the federal government, RNG is dramatically more affordable than conventional fuel. What's more, most landfills who partner with LFG treatment companies receive royalties for sales of RNG produced from material at their waste sites.
Reduced emissions and increased renewability
From an environmental standpoint, LFG to RNG conversion is also a major win. It's estimated that diesel-powered garbage trucks produce approximately 27 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions in the US every year. In addition to that, methane has proven to be 28 times more effective at trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere than carbon dioxide. By harnessing the methane endemic to landfills to fuel waste management fleet vehicles, these figures become much different. Instead of constantly releasing more and more gasses into the atmosphere, the same gas is repeatedly recycled, bringing overall emissions output closer to neutral. Such a paradigm shift would be a tremendous step forward in humanity's efforts to combat climate change.
Challenges to be overcome
While the benefits of LFG to RNG conversion are numerous, there are some hurdles that might impede waste management fleets from entering the movement.
Vehicle compatibility and the cost of entry
First, the overwhelming majority of vehicles can't run on compressed natural gas inherently. Instead, they need to be modified in order to run off of it. The cost of the parts and labor to perform these modifications can easily run upwards of $6,000, especially when performed on specialized vehicles that often require significant customization. While these prices are expected to decline as technology advances and the LFG conversion industry grows, at least for now, the cost of entry is a significant roadblock for many fleets.
Low mileage compared to traditional fuels
In addition, not all vehicles are well-suited for natural gas modification. In terms of energy output, 5.56 cubic feet of natural gas are equivalent to a single gallon of gasoline. As a result, natural gas fuel tanks need to be significantly larger than conventional fuel tanks in order for vehicles to have the same range from a full tank. While space and weight concerns aren't much of a problem for trucks and many vans, things become far less practical with smaller vehicles. On top of that, converting a hybrid vehicle to run on natural gas is particularly challenging due to the complexity of multiple sources of power.
But despite these challenges, LFG to RNG conversion remains one of the most exciting fleet trends currently going on.
Tackle common waste management challenges with software
Waste management software can help alleviate the fleet management-related pain points refuse companies deal with on a daily basis. Whether a fleet's vehicles are powered by gasoline, RNG or a combination of the two, a fleet fuel management system makes tracking fuel consumption and expenses far easier.