Automaker Gassing Up At Dumps

February 18, 2005
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DETROIT — General Motors Corp. is well on its way to meeting the goal the company set in 2000 to reduce its total energy use at least 10 percent by the end of this year.

As unbelievable as this may sound, a big reason that the world's largest automaker will reach that mark can be found in dumps located near five of its plants across the country.

Those landfills offer something aptly called landfill gas, which is emitted from the waste as it decomposes. That gas is half methane, a greenhouse gas that GM collects and then pumps into boilers that heat and cool the plants' environments.

"It makes good business sense, number one," said Joseph Bibeau, director of energy and utility services for the GM Worldwide Facilities Group.

"And environmentally it's also the right thing to do," he added. "In fact, one of our four key goals is to maximize the use of renewable energy wherever we can.

"And not just with landfill gas," he added. "Landfill gas just happens to be one of the more successful forms of renewable energy."

GM is using about 1.8 trillion BTUs of the landfill gas each year as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to natural gas. All that methane has helped the company lower its use of natural gas by 25 percent in just the past few years.

The World Resources Institute and the Green Power Market Development Group named GM as the largest non-utility user of landfill gas in the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the company its Energy Partner of the Year Award in 2003, back when the automaker was using landfill gas at plants in Toledo, Lake Orion, Fort Wayne and Shreveport.

Since receiving that honor, GM is now heating and cooling another assembly plant in Oklahoma City with the gas.

The automaker also has two other facilities where it is buying electricity that is generated from landfill gas and both are in Michigan. One is the spare parts operation headquarters in Grand Blanc and the other is a spare parts operation in Flint.

Al Hildreth, GM's manager of renewable energy, said the company has done this by working with whomever owns a landfill — and the accompanying rights to the gas — to gain access to the methane. In some cases, he said, it's also been necessary to get easements to public rights-of-way in order to get the gas to a plant.

"We've been actively participating with EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program since its inception, and probably back in the early 1990s or so was when we started looking at it. In mid-1995, we did our first project at Toledo. Lake Orion came after that," said Hildreth.

GM has calculated that it saves about $500,000 a year in energy costs at each plant by substituting landfill gas for natural gas.

Bibeau said the actual savings for each plant varies, depending on the amount of landfill gas available from a particular site, but the half-million-dollar figure represents a good average.

As for the start-up cost of getting the power source, Bibeau said GM has been fortunate with the agreement it has created.

"We have been able to work out an arrangement with a third-party investor and they absorb the cost," Bibeau said.

"Our commitment is, we will consume a minimum quantity of landfill gas over a period of time, which has generally been about 10 years. During that 10 years, they recover their investment," said Bibeau, who talked about the company's use of landfill gas at the DTE Alternative Energy Conference last week.

"We've been successful doing this without any up-front cost to General Motors."

The situation is similar to how GM buys natural gas, paying a certain amount for each BTU. But with landfill gas, a BTU is less expensive and methane is much less harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide emissions.

GM's drive to reduce its energy use isn't limited to plants in the United States, or even in North America.

The company has set a global goal of cutting its usage and is measuring that in gigawatt hours. GM used 38,587 GWh globally in 1999. By the end of 2003, the firm had reduced its global energy use to 34,145 GWh — a dip of 11.5 percent in four years.

Bibeau told the Business Journal that GM is looking to power other facilities and plants with landfill methane gas. But a company policy prohibits him from revealing the sites that are likely next in line until a contract is signed.

"Just recently we had one of our people here from Brazil and we've had discussions with them about expanding the concept into Brazil," said Bibeau, who joined GM in 1964.

"We'd love to do this at every one of our facilities. We're excited with the results of it," added Hildreth.

"We are looking at other facilities and have done a broad analysis to try to find what other opportunities are available for us, and we are pursuing some."    

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