First in a series with the Seattle Times on the future of natural gas in homes and businesses.
ROOSEVELT, Washington—Two trains each day pull into this tiny hamlet tucked deep within the Columbia River Gorge. They carry more than 12 million pounds of garbage that is transferred to a fleet of trucks, which crawl up a cliff-side road full of hairpin turns to the top of an arid plateau.
There, an armada of excavators, bulldozers and compactors spread, crush and bury this trash.
Now, this giant landfill is the source of pipeline-quality natural gas—enough for some 19,000 homes to operate furnaces, stoves and water heaters each day.
This is the same stuff produced elsewhere in North America by fracking. But here it is generated from the decay—deep underground—of food scraps, dog poop, yard clippings, paper and other organic materials mixed in with the trash.
The landfill gas is owned by the Klickitat Public Utility District, which raised some $40 million to build a processing plant to strip out gas impurities.
The production helps fuel a high-stakes political battle unfolding in Washington and elsewhere in the nation over the future of gas utilities in a century of intensifying climate change driven by the global use of fossil fuels.
A big question hanging over this industry is how to lower the carbon footprint of buildings, which in Washington currently account for more than 23% of state greenhouse gas emissions and represent the fastest-growing source.
Pacific Northwest gas officials cite the potential for greening the state’s pipeline network with landfill renewable natural gas and other low-carbon fuels that can be used for heating and other tasks. This winter, they joined in a lobbying campaign to kill a bill in the Legislature encouraging an alternative path—electrification of buildings from a grid that, under state law, must be purged of greenhouse gas pollution over next quarter century.
In Washington, Puget Sound Energy (PSE)—the state’s largest utility—is in the thick of this fight. The company is a major provider of electricity but also has a big stake in the gas industry with 26,000 miles of pipelines and some 800,000 customers.
PSE has signed a 20-year contract that by 2024 will purchase all the output from the Klickitat plant. The company leaders now champion the potential of this renewable natural gas, along with hydrogen, to help reach an “aspirational goal” of eliminating almost all carbon emissions by 2045.
This path forward would require a kind of energy revolution that could run up against significant supply constraints.
Washington’s pipeline-quality methane production from landfills makes up just 1.3% of the state’s natural gas consumption. A state Department of Commerce study found that extensive use of other organic wastes—such as sewage, dairy manure and food processing leftovers—could push production up to 5% of the state’s consumption. That could possibly climb up to 10% through gasification of wood if cost-effective processing could be developed.
Future supplies of low-carbon hydrogen are uncertain. If production is scaled up greatly, this hydrogen still would have other high-value uses besides home heating, and switching largely to this fuel would require big investments to change pipelines.
Critics in the environmental community are skeptical this vision will ever be fully realized. “This is being way oversold,” said Doug Howell, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club.
PSE Chief Executive Officer Mary Kipp acknowledges the way forward is full of challenges but is hopeful that technological innovation will enable the utility to pull off this transformation.
“One thing we have been really upfront on—we don’t have all the answers,” said Kipp, who took over leadership of the utility in 2019.
Legislative Battles Flare
The uncertainties surrounding alternative pipeline fuels have not slowed gas industry lobbying efforts to fend off legislative attempts to spur greater electrification of buildings.
In Washington state, the industry targeted a bill that initially included what would have been a first-in-the-nation, statewide ban on fossil-fuel heating in new buildings by 2030.
The bill was a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee, who has garnered a national reputation for his zeal in combating climate change.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Alex Ramel, a Democrat newcomer from Northwest Washington with a background in energy conservation and environmental organizing.
With Democrats in control of the state House and Senate, Ramel was hopeful that the legislation—at least in some form—could be passed into law.
The bill would help carry out Inslee’s energy strategy for reducing almost all state carbon pollution by 2050—a target set by the Legislature. The governor’s plan, as outlined in a state Commerce Department document released in January, includes a transition from gas to electric heating in most Washington buildings.
“We found that converting to electricity was more cost effective than converting to some carbon-free forms of gas,” said Glenn Blackmon, manager of the Energy Policy office of the state Commerce Department, which contracted for a study of pathways to a low-carbon future.
Gas industry officials have challenged the state’s strategy, which they allege is biased in favor of electricity. They say using electricity to heat most buildings could strain the grid amid a difficult transition to more renewable forms of power. That could put the region at greater risk of blackouts.
The “overall objective is decarbonizing Washington’s economy, not electrification. The vast and valuable gas delivery system can—and should—contribute to our clean energy future,” wrote Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, an industry trade group, in comments to the state Department of Commerce.
Kirschner’s association helped to mobilize a formidable coalition to oppose Ramel’s bill that includes building contractors and unions with trades tied to gas heat who lined up to testify against the bill.
Faced with this pressure, Ramel in February opted to revise the bill to drop the 2030 ban on fossil fuel hookups in buildings. He hoped the bill could then move forward with what he considered other important provisions to help accelerate use of electric heat and prod the building sector to reduce carbon emissions.
The gas industry was not placated by the changes.
Opponents sent a Feb. 16 letter to some legislators that slammed the bill and—according to Blackmon of the Commerce Department—misrepresented findings in the state energy study. The letter stated the study found that electrification would result in a $700 increase in home energy costs. Blackmon said the study concluded there would be a net savings in energy expenses as consumers left behind natural gas, gasoline and other liquid fuels.
PSE has supported some climate change legislation, such as a 2019 law that phases out coal and gas-generated electricity. But it was one of the 21 organizations with its logo affixed to the letter opposing Ramel’s bill.
“This policy is not the preferred pathway to achieve carbon reductions. It is an expensive ill-conceived set of ideas,” Janet Kelly, PSE’s government affairs director said, slamming the bill in Feb. 17 online testimony to the state House Appropriations Committee.
The bill needed to move out of the committee by Feb. 22. It failed to be put to a vote, and appears dead for the session.
“The campaign of misinformation had done the job it was intended to do,” Ramel said.
The day after the bill died, Kirschner made his own legislative ask.
He pitched a provision that would forbid local governments from banning new gas hookups, a preemption clause similar to those the industry has tried to pass in other states.
Kirschner proposed the provision be inserted in environmental legislation in the state Senate sought by Gov. Inslee to put a price on carbon emissions, according to a copy of email correspondence from Kirschner to state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, obtained by The Seattle Times.
Carlyle, the bill’s lead sponsor, did not insert the provision in a revised draft that on Feb. 25 moved out of the state committee he chairs.
Kirschner’s association, meanwhile, is withholding support for the bill.
“We want to get there,” Kirschner said. “We have indicated what it will take to get there.”
‘Other Landfills Are Following Us‘
In the months ahead, the Klickitat County landfill methane will become the most visible sign to date of the Washington gas industry’s attempt to transition to renewable natural gas.
Under a program mandated by 2019 state legislation, PSE later this year will start offering customers the option of paying extra—likely in $5 increments—for the renewable gas produced at Klickitat. This gas, largely because it’s derived from organic wastes, has a much lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Sometime early this summer, customers will actually be able to check the box on their bill, or call in, and actually start choosing the quantity of renewable gas that they get,” said Bill Donohue, PSE’s manager of natural gas resources.
This landfill, one of the largest in the nation, is owned by Republic Services, which takes in shipments from five states and British Columbia.
Republic officials were drawn to the remote location by a 300-foot layer of subterranean clay that helps — in addition to liners — protect groundwater.
They also employ falconers whose birds, typically hawks, periodically circle the dumping area to scare off pigeons, gulls and other scavengers.
The site opened in 1990, and from the start, Klickitat County saw value in the gas that would be generated from all this material, and retained ownership rights.
Today, Republic and county utility district staff monitor some 270 wells outfitted with vacuum pumps that typically draw from a depth of 80 to 100 feet, where the lack of oxygen creates prime conditions for the bacteria to break down the organic materials.
Kevin Ricks, the Klickitat utility’s renewable energy assets manager, talks about the biological processes unfolding here like a brewmaster fussing over the yeast needed to make beer. He compares the landfill to a giant living organism in an environment that is constantly changing.
That can make well operations a tricky task.
If the pumps pull too hard, oxygen can seep into the well and mess with gas generation, or even cause fires. If they don’t pull hard enough, methane — a potent greenhouse gas — can vent into the atmosphere.
The Klickitat utility district initially used to burn the landfill methane to generate electricity
During the past decade, this became a money-losing proposition as power prices were depressed by an abundance of electricity from solar, wind and natural-gas plants.
Ricks found that the utility district could make a lot more money if the landfill methane was put into a pipeline and sold in California, where its value is greatly increased by federal and state rules that require the use of more lower-carbon fuels in cars and trucks.
But to enter that market, the landfill gas had to be cleaned up. The gas coming out of the well is only 53% methane — far from the 98% purity requirement.
Ricks used to work in the Navy as an electrician on a nuclear submarine. Working with consultants, he came up with a process that uses intense heat to remove contaminants.
But the nitrogen stubbornly remained, and the standard process for removing it requires lots of electricity.
Ricks came up with an alternative — scouted on a trip to an Alabama coal mine — that cuts energy use by about 25% for the entire plant with the aid of -280 degree Fahrenheit cold. That process, which started up in 2018, unfolds in a 107-foot tall frost-coated column anchored into the ground with eight-foot-long bolts.
“Nobody wanted to go first,” Ricks said. “Now, other landfills are following us.”
The Klickitat landfill project has earned praise from politicians, industry officials and environmentalists. In the years ahead, more than a dozen other landfills around Washington hold the potential to turn trash into renewable natural gas, according to the state Commerce Department study.
But there is no consensus on how this energy resource should best be put to use.
Gas industry officials tout these projects for their potential to replace natural gas in homes. Environmentalists say that there won’t be near enough to accomplish that task. So they continue to press for more electric heat in buildings, and say bio-gas might best be reserved for other uses, such as powering trucks.
Ramel intends to reintroduce his legislation next year. “I am not giving up on this. What we’re talking about is a decades-long transition,” he said.
In Klickitat County, Ricks is focused on improvements. He is working on a project that—with the aid of solar-powered sensors attached to each well—would fine-tune, each hour, the pumping pressures and improve the efficiency of gas collection.
Surveys show that about 25% to 30% of the trash dumped at the landfill consists of the organic materials that produce this gas. As recycling and composting efforts improve, that percentage may decline over time, and eventually reduce gas production.
With some 60 million tons of garbage already dumped, Ricks isn’t expecting a slump in production anytime soon.
“It’s not something I’m losing sleep over,” Ricks said.