Missoula County backs Republic Services’ proposed gas-to-power project at landfill

Trash buried at the Missoula landfill emits methane gas, which Republic Services currently flares off. The company is looking at a possible gas-to-power project. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

A proposal to convert methane gas from the Missoula landfill to clean electricity won the official support of Missoula County on Tuesday.

While details are few and the project isn’t yet firm, county officials said the proposal by Republic Services would go far in helping the Missoula urban area achieve its goals of operating off 100% clean electricity by 2035.

“Republic has discussed this possibility in the past with some of the electric co-operatives as possible off-takers of that electricity,” said Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator. “This would be supportive of the city and county’s joint goal of 100% clean electricity.”

Republic Services operates 75 renewable energy projects across the country, according to the company. Its 68 gas-to-energy projects at various landfills generate enough renewable energy to fully power more than 250,000 homes each year.

The facilities collect landfill gas and convert it to a clean, renewable fuel. According to the EPA, one Republic conversion at a Texas landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions equal to more than 51,000 cars.

A similar process is being explored for the Missoula landfill.

“It’s a way to use the gas that seeps out of landfills from the decomposition of the waste,” said Maneta. “Rather than flaring that gas off, which is what Republic currently does at the Missoula landfill, they can use that gas to generate electricity.”

While Republic Services doesn’t operate any gas-to-energy projects at its Montana landfills, Flathead County operates its own. The county, in partnership with Flathead Electric Co-Op, partnered on what became Montana’s first methane gas-to-energy project in 2009.

According to Flathead Electric, the plant generates enough electricity to serve up to 1,600 homes. It was made possible with $3.5 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds. The process burns the gas in an engine that drives a 1.6 megawatt electric generator connected directly to Flathead Electric’s distribution system.

“In terms of the gas fields, or how much gas is seeping out, Republic had suggested they could accommodate two generators of the size the Flathead landfill has in Missoula,” Maneta said.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that results from decaying garbage. It’s considered 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills are required to prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere or leaking into groundwater under a landfill.

“This is a great idea that fits right in with our energy conservation goals for Missoula County,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier in voicing support for the project.

Driven by what they described as a moral imperative and public demand, the city and county adopted a resolution in 2019 to achieve 100% clean electricity across the urban area by 2030.

Both the city and the county also have established goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, and both have completed an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to set a baseline measurement.

On the city side, the study found that municipal government emitted more than 8,600 metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2009. The county’s study found that its operations emitted more than 7,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016.

“If we can make this happen, some of those south-facing hills capped with garbage would be a great place to put solar panels,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “There’s nothing that’s ever going to be built there.”