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EARTHWATCH : Trash and Burn : It's garbage in, energy out as the Oxnard landfill provides an ozone-friendly source.


It turns out that there are energy sources where you'd least expect to find them. I'm not talking about some undiscovered OPEC member. I'm talking about the Oxnard landfill. It's the site of a biomass-powered electric generator.

The landfill, located where the Ventura Freeway crosses the Santa Clara River, was closed in 1984. River Glade Golf Course sits on top of the non-hazardous, municipal waste nowadays. There's a luxury hotel on one edge that is easy to find, and a little power plant on the other edge that nobody seems to notice.

Perforated plastic pipes run from the plant out under the golf course to collect methane gas for the generating rig. Pacific Energy, a subsidiary of Southern California Gas Co., pays the city for the methane and sells the electricity, which is generated at the landfill facility, to Southern California Edison Co.

I like this. California leads the nation in sensible stuff like this. And if you're slightly uncomfortable about the idea of turning leftovers into lighting, let me show you where it fits into the big picture.

After the oil shock of the '70s, California got into alternative energy--spurred by the "double whammy" of shortages and smog. We stuck with it, which many states didn't. Twelve percent of our power comes from alternative sources. So we're in a good position to enter the next century less in hock to foreign oil than other states. We're familiar with renewable energy technology and seem to have the civic will to mandate the switch.

Unlike new oil and nuclear power, which take decades to bring on line, renewable energy characteristically takes less than a year to rig. The Oxnard setup took eight months and, in an earlier column, I reported that the solar company that sells power to our electric company puts up generation facilities in nine months.

By recycling our garbage into energy, we avoid the costs attached to nuclear waste cleanup, the ultimate price for not using renewable energy sources. Since the 1940s, we have been building nuclear generators and stocking them with radioactive fuel--and then closing them down and tossing out the spent material. An expensive and dangerous process of "onetime use." And then there were the weapons plants and their debris.

Last week, we learned that the tab for this cleanup will come to a $100 billion nationwide. In this context, renewable energy as a source for electrical power looks more and more mainstream. It costs less to set up and you don't have to clean up after it.

So back to the landfill. In the demure language of Will Steger's "Citizen's Guide to Environmental Action--Saving the Earth" (Knopf, 1989): "The process serves a dual role--eliminating greenhouse-contributing methane gas and offering an alternative to fossil fuel-generated power. Agencies in charge of local landfills should be encouraged to investigate."

There are more than 3,500 suitable landfills in the United States and only 100 have power projects. Almost half of these projects are in our state. The county has one, and four more are suitable for such a project. This process, sometimes called biomass generation is, as I mentioned, one of several alternative fuel sources.

Oddly, by burning methane, you decrease pollution and prevent ozone destruction, whereas it's the reverse with oil and coal. In fact, if you don't burn methane produced at the dump, it rises up into the ozone layer and does more damage than if you didn't burn it. A double whammy again--burn it or it burns us. Many cities vent the landfill and just burn it off without thinking of generating electricity. The Simi Valley Sanitation District is involved in negotiations to "go electric" and link up to the Edison system.

According to Roy Schellenberg, Edison's supervising distribution engineer in Ventura, Edison has 272,000 megawatts of biomass energy on its system in Southern California. (Pacific Energy calculates that for every 250 residences added to the grid, 1 megawatt capacity must be added.) Landfill rigs give fuel for decades, at stable prices. I know that Edison is involved in merger discussions with San Diego Gas & Electric. Whatever the outcome, alternative fuels are going to have to play a positive role, according to John Bryson, the new chairman of Edison.

If we worked together nationwide to tap the biomass in sanitary landfills, we could produce, according to Tony Henrich of Pacific Energy (the Oxnard operator), the equivalent of 20 new nuclear plants.


For information on renewable energy sources, contact the Independent Energy Producers Assn. in Sacramento at (916) 488-9499.

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