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Put landfill to work Chautauqua County tries innovation to turn methane into usable energy

Chautauqua County has embarked upon plans for a methane-to-electricity plant at the county's landfill -- a step that should result in a cleaner process and a financial benefit for residents.

With a push from neophyte County Legislature Energy Committee Chairman Scot W. Stutzman of Jamestown and County Executive Gregory J. Edwards, a contract to begin the design, construction and operational phases of the project recently was signed. Completion is anticipated in 2008.

Both politicians as well as previous legislators, who had the idea of using the methane gas generated by the landfill, deserve credit for opening these energy possibilities. The plant will turn garbage into energy or profit. The energy can be used to power facilities within the municipality, or the power can be sold back to the grid and the county can collect some renewable energy tax credits in the process.

Officials expect the revenues generated from power sales to cover the $8 million to $10 million cost of building the project and connecting it to National Grid; generated revenues also may be used to lower county property taxes.

There's a potential environmental benefit as well. Normally the county would be using electricity generated commercially by power plants that burn coal or natural gas. A process that uses the now-wasted methane already produced by the landfill, instead of fuels brought to the utility plants, could cut air pollution.

Edwards, in his second year as county executive, explored the opportunities and found that the municipality was emitting about 1,500 cubic feet per minute of methane from the landfill. At that time, the methane was being run through a flare, a controlled flame burning off the methane and other gases to control odor and cut down on other emissions.

Edwards asked the landfill and finance directors, along with the county attorney, to analyze what could be done. That led to requests for proposals, and the selection of Innovative Energy Systems to build a generating facility on the landfill and help market its electricity. Over 20 years, the return on investment is estimated at about $40 million.

By using that nontax source of revenue, Chautauqua County could limit the need for additional property tax dollars. Still unknown is what "green credits" -- federal incentives to municipalities -- the county might get because this is being produced with a noncarbon-based material. With or without that additional money, Chautauqua County residents could benefit from this idea for years to come. Other local governments should be watching.

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