By Geoff Livingston
Esther Davis is the compliance and safety coordinator at the Trans-Jordan Landfill in South Jordan, Utah right outside of Salt Lake City. She also serves as an environmental educator.
She spends a good portion of her day educating a wide range of people — from local schoolchildren to bloggers like me — about how the Trans-Jordan Landfill, in partnership with Granger Energy, transforms methane gas produced in the landfill into energy. This energy supplies 4,500 homes in nearby Murray, Utah.
I visited the Trans-Jordan landfill as part of a documentary team producing digital content for the carbon-offset program Audi supports in partnership with 3Degrees. This program offsets the assembly, distribution and the first 50,000 miles of driving for the Audi A3 e-tron, a plug-in hybrid electric car coming this fall.
Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on the climate is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the U.S. EPA.
Landfills account for approximately 18 percent of total U.S. anthropogenic methane (CH4) emissions. Further, methane accounts for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, explaining Audi’s interest in funding efforts that turn the toxic gas into a cleaner form of energy.
Davis showed us how the landfill takes in local waste, a wide variety of refuse that ranges from beaten-up sneakers and unusable building materials to soiled diapers and foods.
I listened to her explain the process to our team, as well as two sets of schoolchildren. Davis is a grandmother in her personal life, and it was clear she understands kids. These kids were amazed to learn about how their garbage is collected and its impact on the earth. They cheered as the bulldozers flattened large pieces of waste.
“Educating children about landfills and their impact on the environment is the most rewarding part of my job,” Davis said. “Children inherently understand that they can make a difference with our earth in the choices that they make.
"I share with them that we gather the landfill gas that could otherwise go into the atmosphere and turn it into the energy that powers their homes and schools. They are amazed to know that their garbage is not polluting the atmosphere but helping to keep it cleaner by using this gas instead of coal power.”
As the waste breaks down over time, toxic methane is produced. At many landfills, methane is burned in a flare so that it isn't released into the environment. While this is okay, it doesn’t do anything with this potential source of energy.
After Trans-Jordan’s bulldozers break down and plow over thousands of tons of trash and fill in a portion of the landfill, Granger Energy sets up pumps on top of the landfill to capture the gas.
From there, Granger moves the methane into a nearby facility where it is separated from other gases, and turned into a more usable energy source.
Three massive turbines burn the gas and turn it into electricity that is then sold to a local utility or other electrical customers. This significantly reduces methane emissions, and provides an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, all while providing electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week to nearby Murray.
The overall annual emissions reduction at Trans-Jordan is 136,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e).
“Working at a landfill is not a job that most people would think would be a satisfying one for someone who has a deep appreciation for the environment,” Davis said. “However the fact that we at Trans-Jordan Landfill not only recycle, compost green waste and help residents handle their household chemicals properly, but we also create a renewable fuel using what is a potent greenhouse gas to create electricity is indeed quite satisfying. Now that is music to this environmentalist’s ears.”
It was really quite amazing to see this story unfold in person. Just starting out with the Utah sunrise coming through the gas pumps on top of the landfill was incredible. Then watching the seagulls fly into the landfill to pick at the refuse while children watched the bulldozers manage our waste was esoteric to say the least. Finally, the tremendous sound of the massive turbines working to turn toxic gas into alternative energy was powerful.
The Audi-sponsored landfill program truly is a testimony of the old adage to make lemonade from lemons.
A former journalist, Geoff Livingston continues to write, and has authored four books. Most recently he published his first novel "Exodus" in 2013, co-authored "Marketing in the Round," and wrote the social media primer "Welcome to the Fifth Estate." Professionally, Geoff founded Tenacity5 Media, a marketing consultancy serving companies and nonprofits. He has advised more than 10 members of the Fortune 500.