Berkeley harnesses power of trash

Steve Lamb of SCS Engineers (right, front) explains Wednesday how the methane-extraction system at the Berkeley County Landfill works. Methane is extracted from the garbage and piped to the station, where it will meet a Santee Cooper pipe that will draw i

MONCKS CORNER -- A big, blue flame shoots 30 feet into the air at the Berkeley County landfill, visible at night to motorists driving up U.S. Highway 52 toward town.

It's the sight of trash being turned into cash.

The flame -- invisible during the day -- is methane gas, sucked up from the landfill through a network of pipes sunk deep in the mounds of muck.

Methane is usually the bad guy, a prime suspect in global warming. But burning it could bring $1 million a year into county coffers, according to Water and Sanitation Director Colin Martin.

"Whoever thought trash would be exciting?" Martin said Wednesday before a tour of the site.

The project not only keeps the air cleaner, it will keep water and sewer bills low and also could be used for more parks and recreation fields, Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said.

"Today is a milestone," he said. "This could be a model for other communities."

The money will come from Santee

Cooper and Google. A celebration Wednesday honored them as the first buyers.

Santee Cooper will buy methane to power a generator at the site. The 3-megawatt generator will make enough electricity for 1,500 households, Chief Executive Officer Lonnie Carter said Wednesday.

"This is one of the most earth-friendly stories you'll find ... to take something that would otherwise have gone to waste and turn it into something useful for our citizens," he said.

The generator and filters are under construction near where the methane is burning. Officials expect them to be operational this fall.

The landfill project won't lower electricity bills because burning methane costs more than burning coal, according to communications director Mollie Gore. But it won't raise rates, either, and Santee Cooper supports landfill projects to offset greenhouse gases, she said. This is Santee Cooper's sixth landfill project and the first one in the Lowcountry.

Google will buy energy credits from burning the methane, data center operations manager Eric Wages said. Burning methane keeps the harmful greenhouse gas out of the air. Supporting the landfill project offsets some of the electricity Google uses with its vast array of computers, he said.

Google has signed a contract to buy energy credits through 2013. The credits won't be available until the gas is monitored for a year, according to Annika Colston, vice president of Blue Source, a company that sells energy credits.

Computers monitor the flow and record the methane, carbon and oxygen mixture every five seconds, according to Steve Lamb, project manager with SCS Engineers.