Marking a milestone: 10 years of turning landfill’s methane gas into electricity






by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

A project that turns landfill gas into electricity celebrated a milestone this week.

The landfill gas-to-electricity plant marked its 10th year of operation with an open house Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Elk River Landfill, located at 22460 Highway 10.

The facility uses gas produced by decomposing garbage and converts it into enough electricity to power 2,500 homes, or about 10 percent of Elk River’s electrical needs.

Betsy Wergin said the project takes something that was not being used and turns it into something good for everybody.

Wergin is a member of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, but was on the Sherburne County Board when the project was launched a decade ago. She also is a former state legislator.

A diverse portfolio for energy is needed, Wergin said. Generating electricity from coal is becoming more expensive, wind and solar aren’t feasible everywhere and nuclear has been “sort of off the table” since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, she said. While landfill gas is not the cheapest or most abundant source of energy, it makes sense to capture it, Wergin said.

Before the gas-to-electricity plant began operating, the gas was “flared off” or burned.

The gas is collected at 73 points at the landfill. The landfill gas consists of about 52 percent methane, 40 percent carbon dioxide and 8 percent other, according to Tom Sagstetter of Elk River Municipal Utilities (ERMU).

Four 16-cylinder, 1,200-horsepower Caterpillar generators convert the landfill gas into electricity.

The project is a cooperative effort involving Sherburne County, ERMU, Waste Management and the city of Elk River.

Sherburne County provided financing, ERMU owns the building and all the equipment and Waste Management supplies the landfill gas and contracts for the operation of the facility, Sagstetter said.

ERMU General Manager Troy Adams said he’s not aware of that type of a partnership existing anywhere else.

“This is a great cooperative effort that shows our citizens that public and private enterprises can work together and have success,” said John Dietz, ERMU president and Elk River mayor.

Dietz said they hope to expand the gas-to-electric operation in a few years.

Brooke Eastburn, chief of staff to U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., read a letter from Bachmann in which she applauded the partnership that makes the facility a reality.

“This operation is a shining example of what happens when private business and government work together,” Bachmann said in the letter.

Several other people also spoke at the open house.

Sherburne County Commissioner Rachel Leonard has been on the county board since the landfill gas-to-electric project began.

“It is an idea that I believe in,” she said. “… You can do something in partnership, you can do it without tax dollars and it’s a win-win.”

Leonard also had suggested adding a classroom to the gas-to-electricity plant and an environmental learning center is part of it.

Elk River Council Member Matt Westgaard, who is on the Elk River Energy City Commission, said Elk River has been known as Energy City since 1997. More than 100 tours of the gas-to-electricity facility have been given and about 30 percent of those involved international visitors, he said.

Waste Management built its first landfill gas-to-energy facility more than 20 years ago, according to Julie Ketchum, Waste Management government affairs director. Today it has more than 120 of them including ones in Elk River, Glencoe and Burnsville.

The anniversary celebration in Elk River coincided with Public Power Week, held Oct. 7–13. ERMU is one of more than 2,000 publicly owned electric utilities in the nation.

“The idea is that we provide safe, reliable power for our community, and our customers are owners,” Adams said.