Permission to Power

Orange County’s third landfil gas-to-energy facility began commercial operations this year, but not without meeting the region’s strict air quality standards.
By Katie Fletcher | June 23, 2016

The transition from vision to reality involves many challenges for renewable energy projects. Without a sufficient energy source, capital and consent, the transition is impossible to make. One might assume that in comparison to conventional energy projects, projects focused on reducing environmental impacts and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have an easier time obtaining permits and meeting regulatory requirements, but often, this isn’t the case. The same challenges in obtaining permits for conventional energy projects apply to renewable energy ventures, in addition to other unique requirements.

Pennsylvania-based Montauk Energy has experienced this reality firsthand.Through its Bowerman Power subsidiary, the company developed a 23-MW renewable energy project located within the South Coast Air Basin, a nonattainment basin. This means any incremental increase in air quality must meet strict requirements when undergoing the permitting process with the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The $60 million landfill gas-to-renewable-energy (LFGTE) facility, financed by Cat Financial Services Corp., is located on 2.6 acres of the 725-acre Frank R. Bowerman Landfill near Irvine, California. This project joins other large LFGTE projects in the area (Olinda in Brea and Prima Deshecha in San Juan Capistrano) with the aim of reducing GHG emissions. The Bowerman facility is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 53,000 tons annually. The plant will generate roughly 160,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity, sufficient to serve the equivalent of 26,000 energy-efficient homes in Southern California, and sold to Anaheim Public Utilities under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Collectively, the three LFGTE operations produce approximately 380,000 MWh of electricity annually, enough to power some 56,000 Southern California homes.

In order to begin contributing to the improvement of air quality through its reduction of GHG emissions, the Bowerman project had to meet air quality requirements itself. “We believe this project is fundamental in demonstrating our ability to achieve emissions that have been set by the board,” says Dylan Wright, director of Orange County Waste and Recycling, the landfill owner and operator. Wright adds that one of the challenges associated with the project was due to a new rule passed (Rule 1110.2), which precludes the use of internal combustion engines that don’t meet a certain standard. “This is a very strict standard, and a number of facilities are having to shut down as a result of that—even though they’d be offering a beneficial use—just because it’s cost prohibitive,” Wright says. “This facility is really an engineering feat, because it meets those standards.”

This professed engineering feat combines gas feedstock cleanup, large-scale Cat reciprocating engine generators and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology. The project was championed by Todd Spitzer, Orange County board chairman and Third District supervisor, and won approval from the full Orange County Board of Supervisors in October 2014, after a previous agreement for the facility was revised and updated. Ground was broken in January 2015, and the plant became operational just over a year later, in March 2016.

This achievement was no small feat. “There were a series of externalities, which were beyond anyone’s control,” says Chris Davis, vice president of business development with Montauk Energy. “There were issues in obtaining an air permit, and it wasn’t particular to our project, it was the entire landfill and methane industry that was struggling to get air permits in Southern California.” The issue was related to a court challenge on an unrelated project, which brought into question whether projects such as Bowerman can be permitted as an essential public service to qualify them as exempt from providing their own emission offsets. Landfill gas projects operate under a special criterion in the Air Quality Management District New Source Review requirements, exempting them from purchasing NOx offsets, but AQMD still provides the offsets to comply with federal and state laws.

Davis says that Bowerman’s draft air permit was completed in 2009, but the lawsuit put the project on hold for nearly two years. “Once the court challenge had been addressed, development of the project was restarted, but new air modeling was required given the delays in commencing construction,” he says.

AQMD’s permitting requirements and other local, state and federal air quality rules played a big role in selecting equipment deployed at the plant. For example, the gas cleanup system that includes Sulphur-removal, an off-the-shelf design utilized by Montauk on other projects, and a siloxane removal system by Willexa. Davis says the heart of the gas cleanup configuration is the Willexa system. According to Davis, silica or silicone, which are found in many things that go into a landfill such as cosmetics, deodorant, toothpaste, silica gel, etc., end up in the landfill gas as a broad category of compounds known as siloxanes. When put under high heat, siloxanes can quickly ruin a catalyst system, so all of it is scrubbed out front.

Besides gas cleanup, two other important components of the project are the power generators themselves and the SCR technology that helps the engines meet project requirements. According to Davis, the local air management district strongly favored combustion turbines in lieu of reciprocating engine technology, and during and during 2010-’14, few, if any, reciprocating engine projects were approved for LFGTE projects. But, the cost of operations for combustion turbines on landfill methane is greater than reciprocating engines, Davis says, and the fuel efficiency of combustion turbines was unattractive relative to reciprocating engines. Therefore, Caterpillar’s CG260 (reciprocating) engine generators were evaluated for their ability to meet the needs of the project and satisfy the local AQMD’s emissions requirements. It was found that with the addition of the SCR system for NOx and oxidation catalysts for CO, the project would be acceptable to the AQMD. And, given the drought conditions in California, Davis adds, it was a key objective to pursue a technology that had no water needs for process or cooling, an added benefit of the CG260 configuration.

The sale of power produced by the seven Cat generators helps Anaheim Public Utilities meet its renewable portfolio standard goals. “We have a need for renewable energy to serve our customers,” says Manny Robledo, integrated resource manager with APU. “There is a state mandate to increase the amount of renewable energy by 50 percent by the year 2030, so this project fits into that goal.” According to Robledo, the Bowerman project represents 6 percent of the utility’s renewable energy needs.

The average annual royalty payment to Orange County is projected at $1.62 million, representing an estimated $31 million over the 20-year life of the agreement with Anaheim. In addition, Bowerman Power is providing $1 million in LFG collection system operation and maintenance services to the county. “Creating clean energy power from landfill gas is a smart investment that helps the environment and advances science and engineering,” Spitzer says. “Advancing important technology that helps the environment and potentially generates revenue is the best way for Orange County to do business as a leader in clean energy projects.”

Author: Katie Fletcher
Associate Editor, Biomass Magazine