What does green mean?

Burning landfill gas erupts into fight over 'green' energy

This spring, 3 million Georgians will be able to buy "green energy" — electricity produced by burning the gas that builds up beneath landfills and contributes to global warming. On the surface, the arrangement is a win-win: the new plants — built atop three landfills across the state — will burn off dangerous methane gas and, as an added benefit, spew a smaller amount of pollutants into the air than their counterparts that burn coal.

"We want to deliver more environmentally friendly power to our customers," says Greg Brooks, spokesman for the firm that will sell the electricity.

Even the opening date of the first plant, in Taylor County, is symbolically timed: April 22, Earth Day.

By other significant measures, however, the "green" initiative isn't green at all. And that has put environmental groups such as the Sierra Club squarely against the arrangement. It's also shown how easily the label "green" can be co-opted and stuck on projects whose environmental benefits are dubious, at best.

The electricity produced by the landfill plants will be sold by Green Power EMC. But Green Power EMC is not a power company, per se, but a partnership of member-owned, nonprofit electric utilities called EMCs. EMCs are Electric Membership Cooperatives, which sell electricity to its customers just like a power company. The difference between an EMC and Georgia Power is that EMCs are run by counties and cities. Profits go into the municipalities' general fund, just as taxes do.

Sixteen of the state's 42 EMCs got together and created Green Power EMC, which has been working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Center for Resource Solutions (a San Francisco-based group that promotes energy efficiency) in devising a plan to harness methane beneath landfills and use it to create electricity.

The plants will work like this: Vertical pipes attached to air pumps and inserted deep into the landfill vacuum out the methane, a combustible gas produced when organic trash such as paper, food scraps and cloth decompose in an environment with no oxygen present. The captured methane is burned to boil water; the resulting steam spins turbines that generate electricity.

Customers of the EMCs that comprise Green Power EMC will be able to buy blocks of energy, in 150-kilowatt hours per month. One kilowatt hour of energy will run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours. Each EMC will charge a different price for the green energy, but it'll be slightly more expensive than traditional energy.

One of the benefits touted by Green Power EMC is that in burning methane gas, the plant will produce less nitrogen oxide than if it burned coal. Nitrogen oxide is the key component of ozone smog. Here in Atlanta, ozone concentrations hit danger levels more than 20 times last summer, meaning that even healthy people are in danger of suffering from lung damage if they exercise outdoors on those days.

Much of the nitrogen oxide in the air above metro Atlanta — about a third — comes from power plants that burn coal.

But the methane-burning plants will also produce nitrogen oxide. In fact, according to the Sierra Club's analysis of the Green Power EMC project, the Taylor County plant will produce nitrogen oxide at a rate three times greater, measured by parts per million, than coal-burning plants. And compared to natural gas-fired plants, the methane plants' parts-per-million emissions of nitrogen oxide will be 25 times greater.

The questions about the project's "green-ness" don't end there. Burning methane to generate electricity also means burning other gases found in landfills.

"The problem is not just climate change and methane," says Peter Anderson, president of Recycle World Consulting and chairman of the landfill committee for the National Recycling Coalition. "There's a whole witch's brew of toxic gases in landfills."

The EPA has found traces of 11 harmful gases (such as benzene, a carcinogen) in landfill gas. Plus, mercury is sent to the dump in thermometers, fluorescent lights, batteries and old latex paint.

Burning those chemicals doesn't get rid of them all. But it can cause chemical reactions that form even more dangerous gases, like dimethyl-mercury, a gas that damages the brain and nervous system.

Scientists don't know enough about what exposure to these gases can do to human health, Anderson says. The few studies that have been undertaken suggest, but don't prove, that landfill gases adversely affect people.

"You would think that if there was any concern about human health, you'd put money into it, study it, and find out for sure, but not one penny has been put forward by the EPA to do that," says Anderson.

The point, though, is that calling it green energy implies that it's good for the environment. But environmentalists say true green energy programs rely on solar power and wind turbines. Both produce zero pollutants.

Of course, adopting euphemisms that sound good but aren't really is nothing new. Take President Bush's Clear Skies program. When he sent his Clear Skies legislation to Congress in July, he claimed the program would "do more to clean up emissions from power plants than ever before."

The truth, of course, is that the program would do anything but. It will simply replace current regulations that would force industries to reduce emissions sooner. In essence, Clear Skies does little to achieve the very thing the program is named after.

So it is, on a smaller scale, with Green Power EMC's landfill gas project.

The Sierra Club and the Grass Roots Recycling Network have launched an attack against the Green Power EMC program, and will try to convince the state EPD to reject EMC's permit application at a Feb. 18 public hearing in Butler, 45 miles east of Columbus.

Says the Sierra Club's Colleen Keirnan: "It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to pay a premium for energy that is labeled green but is really dirtier than coal."