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City Looks at Converting Garbage Stench into Electricity

Image courtesy D'Arcy Norman
Organic material rotting in landfills emits methane-rich biogas, which can be captured and converted to energy.

That horrible stench you smell near garbage dumps? There's energy in those fumes!

Until fairly recently, the technology used to capture methane-rich biogas and turn it into electricity was not taken seriously as an industrial energy source. That's changing. And now the City of Austin is seeing if it should get on board.

The old FM 812 landfill near the airport hasn't accepted organic materials (necessary to produce biogas) since 1999. The city is now in the process of closing the dump for good. But Solid Waste Services division manager Jessica King says they looking at whether there's any methane still worth harvesting in those mounds of trash.

"The monitors are going in as we speak," King told KUT News.  "When you close a landfill, you have to monitor the methane that emanates from that landfill.  We hope that over time we'll be able to monitor the methane value go up so that we can capture it." King says the process is scheduled to be completed by the end of the month.

The city experimented with methane capture technology starting in June 2003 at the FM 812 dump but it "wasn't able to capture and convert the methane as effective as we would have liked," King said. The city scrapped the program a couple years later.

But technology has improved since then.  Methane capture is working successfully in Travis County at the landfill operated by Allied Waste Services of Austin and the Waste Management Austin Community Landfill off US 290 in northeast Austin.

The El Paso Times reported this morning how that city is spending $745,000 to install a methane capture facility at its landfill.

If there is enough of the gas, city officials want to use it to generate electricity to power as many as 10,000 homes. "It's been done in many other cities, but it's new to us," said Ellen Smyth, director of El Paso's Environmental Services and Code Enforcement Department.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.