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DTE Biomass turns a "nasty" greenhouse gas into something better

Jun 6, 2017

Most people know DTE Energy as a gas and electric utility that operates in southeast Michigan. 

But the company also has a subsidiary with projects throughout the country that convert landfill gas to renewable energy. 

DTE Biomass has now added two landfill gas-to-energy projects in Texas to its portfolio.

Kevin Dobson, Vice President of DTE Biomass, says landfills produce greenhouse gases from the decomposition of organic waste.  About half is methane.

"Methane is about 25 times more polluting than carbon dioxide," says Dobson.  "It's a pretty nasty greenhouse gas."

The worst thing, says Dobson, is to let the gases just vent into the atmosphere.  That's what happens in small landfills.  At the very least, larger landfills are required to burn the gases; the burning results in less harm to the environment.

"If you see a pipe and a flame come out of a landfill, that is the gas that's being collected and combusted and destroyed," he says.

But Dobson says, it's much better to use the gas, because it can replace more polluting fossil fuels.  DTE Biomass collects landfill gas and uses it to generate electricity, or in the case of the Texas projects, converts it to renewable natural gas. The Texas gas will be used for special fleets of vehicles designed to run on natural gas, which produces about 60% less CO2 than gasoline.

Dobson says at present, only large landfills located close to industries that can use the converted gas, or near pipelines, are financially viable.  It's usually too costly for smaller landfills or those in remote areas to invest in the technology.

James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council says he's encouraged by DTE's investment in this area.

"The key for processes like this is to drive the cost down to make it a financially profitable undertaking," says Clift.  "In a system that put a true cost on carbon, and other toxic emissions, it would be a much more widespread practice."