It's a Gas

As a child spending time in the rural south, I was familiar with swamp gas. At night, an unusual glowing light in the distance was often dismissed as swamp gas, which was the favorite explanation of the U.S. Air Force when reports of a UFO sighting filled the local newspapers. According to scientists at the time a combination of methane and phosphine, both gases created by the anaerobic bacterial decomposition of organic material, can self-ignite and produce a flame with an eerie green glow. While this fact may be true in the laboratory, I am unaware of any natural occurrence of spontaneous combustion of swamp gas. So, if those glowing lights in the distance weren't caused by burning swamp gas were they UFO's?

The major energy component in swamp gas is methane. Methane is also found in landfill gas and biogas produced by many municipal water treatment plants through the anaerobic digestion of sewage. The natural gas we use in our homes and to produce electricity is primarily methane. More often then not, landfill and biogas is "flared off" and a potential energy source goes undeveloped and unused.

Landfill gas and biogas can be combusted directly to produce heat and process steam or it can be upgraded by removing the carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and water to produce a high-energy pipeline-quality gas. This high-quality gas can also be compressed (compressed natural gas) for use as a transportation fuel. Landfill and water treatment biogas are low-hanging fruit to power renewable energy projects and are preferred projects in countries where mandatory carbon reductions enhance their value.

While the United States is still a voluntary carbon market, all the current major party presidential candidates recognize that greenhouse gas emissions are an environmental concern. That said, the relatively near future will reveal the opportunity for communities to capitalize on their methane generating facilities. An example of landfill gas use is the city of Greensboro, NC. Their landfill gas is collected and transported by pipeline to a textile plant where it is burned in boilers to generate process steam that powers machinery.

Even though the landfill gas is sold at a discount to natural gas it generates around $30,000 annually for the city.

Don't be surprised to find major utilities sniffing around the landfills and sewage treatment facilities of major municipalities in their service area. It is my understanding that Duke Energy is involved in the Greensboro example above, and I am aware of several other major utilities that either are invested in similar projects or are interested in developing landfill gas and biogas projects. These community sources of renewable energy are ripe for development. Those in charge of landfills and water treatment plants should find out exactly what they're sitting on so when the time comes to negotiate over their methane resource they'll come out smelling like roses.

Art Wiselogel is manager of BBI International's Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at or (303) 526-5655.