HALF MOON BAY — Ten thousand Bay Area residents turned on the lights in their homes on Wednesday night, courtesy of recycled gas from the Ox Mountain Landfill.
On a hill overlooking Half Moon Bay at a ceremony attended by local dignitaries, a gas conversion plant roared to life Wednesday morning and began sucking methane out of the landfill and converting it into energy destined for the cities of Palo Alto and Alameda.
The largest landfill gas-to-energy project in the Bay Area will produce 12 megawatts of power at a constant rate, drawing on a potentially bottomless source of renewable "green" power that has proved more predictable and reliable than either solar or wind energy.
Perhaps most importantly, it will divert methane, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — the emissions equivalent of taking 11,800 cars off the road, according to Ameresco, the company that owns and operates the energy plant at Ox Mountain.
"Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It's 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide," said Peter Drekmeier, mayor of Palo Alto and a speaker at the ceremony. "This is not only taking advantage of a waste product, but it's something far more potent than CO2."
The cities of Palo Alto and Alameda, public utilities that do not buy their energy from PG&E, were first in line to take advantage of the Ox Mountain Landfill gas conversion project when it was announced in 2004, and they each draw half the energy.
Palo Alto currently derives 19 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including other local landfill methane projects, with a goal of increasing the proportion to 33 percent by 2015. Alameda Municipal Power began purchasing renewable energy in the 1980s, and green energy now accounts for 65 percent of its portfolio, according to Girish Balachandran, general manager of the public utility.
"Alameda is No. 1 in the state in renewable power," Balachandran boasted. "We've invested in geothermal energy at the Geysers (in Sonoma County), wind energy in Solano County and landfill gas from Santa Cruz."
Ameresco has explained that under California law, Ox Mountain is permitted to sell energy only to municipal utilities rather than a private utility such as PG&E. Because they are buying directly from energy producers, community-run power utilities can offer their power at lower rates. Alameda Municipal Power's rates are 25 percent lower than PG&E's, according to Balachandran.
Many people may not be accustomed to thinking of landfills as anything other than a smelly problem. But as methane gas-to-energy technology has matured over the past 20 years, 445 landfills across the country have turned the leaky, pungent gas into a marketable commodity.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the potential for 535 more projects. Although popular with utilities, some landfills are better candidates than others due to their size and depth.
Ox Mountain has been gathering methane for as long as it has collected trash — since it opened in 1976. Operators used to burn the methane off with a flare, but they estimate there is enough methane stored in underground pockets to far outlast the landfill itself, which is likely to close in 25 years.
Reach Julia Scott at email@example.com or at 650-348-4340.