OUTHERN IDAHO SOLID WASTE IS TURNING YOUR TRASH INTO ELECTRICITY
By: Ashlee Forman, Blaine County Sustainability Fellow
Turning trash into energy? It may sound like some too good to be true eco-fantasy, but with today’s technology and the commitment of an innovative solid waste district, the seemingly impossible has become reality in Burley, Idaho.
Many of us are familiar with carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant human-activity-generated greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses get their name from the effect they have on our atmosphere in that they trap heat. You can think of earth’s atmosphere as a thin blanket. It protects and insulates our planet by allowing life-supporting conditions like warm temperatures and oxygen-rich air to stay close to the surface. When greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are emitted, that blanket becomes thicker and thicker. Trapping more and more heat near the earth’s surface acts like a thick blanket would to a body.
WHAT IS METHANE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Methane is a far less commonly talked about gas compared to CO2, but in terms of its heat trapping abilities, it is more powerful. One of the many ways that methane is released into the atmosphere is through the decomposition of waste in landfills. Just as humans release CO2 when they exhale, certain bacteria release methane as they help to decompose the waste in our landfills.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “The methane emissions from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills in 2020 were approximately equivalent to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from about 20.3 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or the CO2 emissions from nearly 11.9 million homes’ energy use for one year”. 
TURNING WASTE INTO ENERGY (AND MONEY)
Nate Francisco is the environmental manager for Southern Idaho Solid Waste (SISW) which serves seven counties throughout southern Idaho. Mr. Francisco is in charge of all of SISW’s environmental projects. Part of his job includes finding ways to improve Milner Butte Landfill’s environmental outcomes and maximize the efficiency of the operation.
In 2017, SISW completed a project feasibility study for technologies that would capture the methane gas being produced by the landfill and turn it into a source of renewable energy. After exploring several options, they settled on a landfill gas-to-energy system that converts the captured gas into electricity via specially designed generators.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Layers upon layers of pipelines weave underground throughout the Milner Butte landfill. These pipes capture the gasses released by the decomposing trash and transport them to two, soon to be three, 1,300 kilowatt generators. These generators burn the captured greenhouse gasses to create electricity. The electricity generated is purchased by Idaho Power Company and used to power nearby homes. Once the third generator is installed, the landfill will have the capacity to produce 3.9 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 3,000 homes.
 Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Basic Information About Landfill Gas. EPA. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas