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Inside a French company’s plan to turn NY landfill emissions into energy

Waga Energy executives Guénaël Prince (left) and Tanguy Largeau stand in front of the WAGABOX facility at the Steuben County Landfill in Bath, NY. The facility converts landfill emissions into energy.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
Waga Energy executives Guénaël Prince (left) and Tanguy Largeau stand in front of the WAGABOX facility at the Steuben County Landfill in Bath, NY. The facility converts landfill emissions into energy.

Along the winding roads of Bath, New York, flanked by farms and rural homes, the peaks of the Steuben County Landfill emerge from the rolling landscape. Near its entrance, a shiny new energy facility gleams in the sun, around the size of a small building and surrounded by what looks like several large, metal tanks.

Erected by French company Waga Energy, the facility is called a WAGABOX. It’s meant to turn polluting emissions from the breakdown of landfill materials into so-called renewable natural gas, which can replace natural gas made from fossil fuels. The company has other facilities in Europe and Canada. This is their first one in the United States.

“We're helping communities to produce a local natural gas, which is making this community more resilient,” said Tanguy Largeau, who leads commercial development for Waga Energy in North America. Standing in front of a crowd of county officials and journalists gathered at the landfill last month, he celebrated the site’s unveiling.

While landfills remain the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions nationwide, Waga Energy presents a solution: capture the methane and purify it to create a form of renewable energy that can power homes and generate revenue. It’s turning “pollutants to profits,” according to the company’s promotional materials.

Yet, amidst the celebration, some environmentalists are concerned. They worry the rush to turn landfill emissions into pipeline-transported gas in New York could disincentivize waste reduction, and extend the life of the fossil fuel system too.

The tension lays bare the challenges of determining what to do about the state’s waste emissions problem.

The peaks of the Steuben County Landfill emerge from the rolling landscape in Bath, New York.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
The peaks of the Steuben County Landfill emerge from the rolling landscape.

The methane problem

Just below the surface of the Steuben County Landfill, waste is decomposing, breaking down and creating methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. Immediately reducing methane emissions is key to meeting state and federal climate commitments.

Like many New York landfills, the Steuben County Landfill is required to collect and control some of its emissions. In the mid-2000s, the county installed a series of underground pipes to capture the gas created as waste breaks down. In recent years, they burned all that gas in a common process called flaring, which makes it less harmful.

Flaring methane turns it into carbon dioxide, a significantly less-potent greenhouse gas. But flaring also renders methane fairly useless. When processed and purified instead, methane gas can become a form of energy, known as biogas and the industry term “renewable natural gas,” or RNG.

Transforming methane into RNG is what the new facility at the Steuben County Landfill is built for. It’s predicted to generate enough energy to power 4,000 homes a year, and save thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The company makes money by selling the gas it generates to the local utility, and will share a portion of the profits with the county. County officials predict annual gas payments from $75,000 to $250,000 per year from the agreement.

On the day of the unveiling, County Manager Jack Wheeler welcomed that potential income. “Here we are,” he said, pointing to the new machine. "And it is already producing renewable natural gas at rates that exceeded our projections and our expectations.”

Some environmentalists raise concerns

According to the company and the county, the WAGABOX presents an environmental and economical solution, generating income and energy from waste emissions.

But critics like Josh Berman, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, worry that profit potential could actually be a problem. Making money from landfill emissions could disincentivize reducing the waste that creates those emissions, he said.

“When you're commodifying the gas that comes out of it, you're actually creating an incentive to produce more gas from the landfill,” said Berman.

The WAGABOX facility is predicted to produce enough energy to power 4,000 homes a year by converting landfill emissions into 'renewable natural gas'.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
The WAGABOX facility is predicted to produce enough energy to power 4,000 homes a year by converting landfill emissions into renewable natural gas.

Environmentalists also worry that projects like this expand fossil fuel infrastructure — even as the state has committed to reducing its reliance on that system.

“Once you have a pipeline, it makes other fossil natural gas, or fossil gas systems, more likely and more profitable,” said Peter Lehner, a managing attorney with the environmental law group Earthjustice. Essentially, pipelines built for these projects can actually extend the life of the fossil gas system too, he said.

In Steuben County, Corning Natural Gas expanded a pipeline to connect to Waga Energy’s project — exactly what many environmentalists hope to avoid.

Lehner and other environmental experts recommend using energy produced from landfill gas on-site, removing the need to expand gas infrastructure or risk spills from piping it elsewhere. That includes turning it into electricity at the site where it's processed, or using the gas to fuel landfill operations.

“This may be a good way to clean up pollution,” said Lehner. “But not a very good way to generate clean energy.”

The RNG uptick

Until 2019, a different company did turn Steuben County’s landfill emissions into electricity on-site. But officials say it stopped being profitable, so they looked for another solution. Waga Energy’s proposal was the most attractive, according to county officials.

It’s far from the only landfill now looking to turn emissions into RNG. National data shows several other companies have planned similar projects throughout New York. In the Southern Tier, Waga Energy has already been in touch with neighboring Chemung County with a proposal to build another facility.

Part of the growth in the number of these projects can be explained by government clean energy incentives, which encourage energy companies to create gas out of waste emission. The goal is to promote renewable energy production. But some environmental experts, including Cornell University professor Robert Howarth, wish those incentives worked differently.

Waga Energy executive Tanguy Largeau addresses a crowd of company executives and county officials gathered at the Steuben County Landfill for the WAGABOX unveiling in May.
Rebecca Redelmeier/WSKG News
Waga Energy executive Tanguy Largeau addresses a crowd of company executives and county officials gathered at the Steuben County Landfill for the WAGABOX unveiling in May.

Howarth is a member of New York’s Climate Action Council, the group responsible for creating a roadmap to achieve the emissions-reduction commitments laid out in the state's climate law. He said that he supports turning landfill methane emissions into energy, rather than flaring them. Yet he hoped to see uses that don't require piping processed gas elsewhere. That's why he fought for that recommendation to be included in the roadmap.

"Use of biogas on site, where feasible and practical, is preferred,” states New York's official plan for achieving its climate law commitments.

But in Steuben County, the WAGABOX was built to turn methane emissions into RNG, to then be transported through a pipeline.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation said it permitted the site after determining it complied with the state’s climate law.

Waga Energy said their technology presents an efficient way to convert landfill methane into energy, and aligns with their goal of reducing global reliance on fossil fuels.

“We're bringing a solution that incentivizes landfill owners to collect their gas, because we're able to process it, and we're bringing value to that gas,” said Guénaël Prince, one of the company’s founders. “Those landfills are here, no matter what they are here, and they're producing energy.”

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.