SANTA ANA — In a novel bid to generate revenues from rotting garbage, the Board of Supervisors approved a proposal Tuesday to convert methane gas produced at two landfills into electricity that could power more than 11,000 homes.
Under the plan, the county is set to enter into a long-term agreement with a private firm that will operate sophisticated gas recovery systems at the Bowerman landfill in Irvine and the Olinda landfill in Brea. The firm, GSF Energy Inc. of Brea, also has the option to build a conversion plant at the county's third major landfill in San Juan Capistrano.
The deal will provide the county with about $200,000 in annual revenues toward the end of this decade. The landfill system is expected to reduce costs by at least another $200,000 a year through the sharing of some maintenance and operating expenses with GSF.
Officials from the county's Integrated Waste Management Department expressed excitement Tuesday at the prospect of using highly flammable methane gas--with constant monitoring and tight regulations--to produce revenue.
"This is a good situation for everyone," department spokeswoman Sue Gordon said. "We are taking care of our regulatory needs. Plus, this provides electricity to homes in an environmentally friendly project."
A gas collection system capable of producing 3.6 megawatts of electricity yearly is scheduled to be built in a few years at the Bowerman landfill. A gas collection plant constructed 12 years ago at the Olinda landfill will be modernized and expanded, enabling GSF to generate about eight megawatts of energy. Each megawatt of electricity is enough to serve 1,000 homes for a year.
Methane gas is produced by decomposing organic matter at landfills. The county is required by law to closely monitor methane levels to ensure that potentially explosive pockets of gas don't form.
Excess methane is currently brought to the surface through vertical wells and incinerated with flares, Gordon said.
Once the new collection systems are built, methane will be channeled into a power plant, where an engine will use the gas as fuel to create electricity. A transformer will convert the energy into high-voltage electricity, sending it to consumers over power lines, Gordon said. The project has been endorsed by the Southern California Edison Co.
The landfill system is considered one of the county's most valuable assets. Officials expect to generate $15 million a year by importing tons of out-of-county trash to local landfills. The county is now negotiating with the Sanitation Districts of Orange County over the possible sale of the system, which has been estimated to be worth at least $200 million.
In other action Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors appeared to reach consensus that will allow the county to comply with a new state fire law without designating certain hillside and canyon areas as "'very high fire hazard severity zones."
Several residents from North Tustin and other unincorporated areas urged the board not to place their neighborhoods in that category, fearing the action would decrease property values and result in higher insurance rates.
"This would put a stigma on the area that we would never overcome," said Donna Sutton, a North Tustin resident, who noted that the hillside neighborhood has not experienced a major fire in more than 20 years.
A state law approved in the wake of the Laguna Beach and Oakland firestorms requires that counties create fire hazard zones. New homes built within the zones are required to adhere to certain fire safety rules. Some homes must have tile roofs and be clear of brush.
But code enforcement officials said Tuesday the county is probably exempt from the mandate because it already has on the books many of the strict safety rules the state is now requiring.
Some supervisors expressed a willingness Tuesday to adopt additional fire prevention regulations as long as they did not have to designate specific areas as "very high fire hazard severity zones." The board will consider the issue again next week.
The board also adopted tougher safety standards for new pools and spas. The new rules require that swimming pools be surrounded on four sides by a 5-foot gate or that homeowners install special pool alarms or covers. The goal is to reduce the number of accidental pool drownings, especially among young children.
Decay to Delight
The Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday that will allow a private firm to convert methane gas produced at two county landfills into electricity. How the system works:
1. Decaying landfill produces methane gas, which is collected via vertical wells and vacuum system.
2. Compressor pulls gas into methane-burning engine.
3. Engine powers generator.
4. Transformer converts generator energy into high-voltage electricity, which travels to consumers through power lines.
Source: County's Integrated Waste Management Department
Research by SHELBY GRAD / For The Times