Through determination and an inclination for learning and entrepreneurship, this expert overcame obstacles to earn a law degree and an MBA (Santa Clara University). Laura Rasmussen, after practicing law for 20 years, invested in and eventually became the owner and CEO of Energy 2001, a successful landfill gas power plant in Lincoln, California (Sierra Foothills). In the paraphrased interview below, Laura helps us understand the whole landfill gas thing as well as how her business (and others) can have a positive impact on the community and the environment.
Can you provide a basic description of what landfill gas is and what a landfill gas power plant does?
Simply put a landfill gas power plant turns trash into electricity. Landfill gas comes from the decomposition of organic material without oxygen. This anaerobic process releases emissions such as methane. Federal requirements for landfills to contain these harmful outputs (through pipes) have been in place for over 40 years, but the emissions are usually burned (i.e., flaring). Instead of burning the gas, landfill gas power plants capture the gas and turn it into electricity through internal combustion engines (most commonly) and sell it back to the power grid. Energy 2001 partnered with the local agency that owns and operates the landfill to capture the gas for our 5-megawatt plant with the benefits being affordable electricity, local jobs, economic output, energy cost savings, etc.
What do you see as the future of landfill gas power plants, including as they related to other renewable energy sources?
We are always producing more garbage, and garbage will always have value as an energy source. Converting landfill gas to energy currently emits some pollution (e.g., nitrous oxide) – it’s not perfect – but it’s an invaluable stepping stone to weaning America off fossil fuel and will continue to provide an important role in our nation’s growing renewable energy portfolio. All energy sources have an environmental footprint (e.g., even solar with the disposal of panels after their useful life), but we should always be striving to reduce that footprint. In the future, we can improve the containment of landfill gas and use it in other ways. Ideally, we wouldn’t have gasses coming out of landfills at all. Turning landfill gas to energy with current technology is not be-all and end-all but since the gas is created, we might as well use it while continuing to strive for even better ways to capture and convert the energy in our waste.
How does policy (state/local or federal) support or hinder landfill gas power plants?
The government has a real impact on landfill gas to energy companies through the green energy standards they establish. California has one of the nation’s – if not the world’s – most aggressive standards: to be 50% renewable by 2030. This encourages power purchasers to buy more power from local, green companies, which in turn helps create more good paying energy jobs for our economy. Other supportive governmental funding and regulation relate to anaerobic digestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The regulatory environment is pretty complex, but a quick summary is that federal air quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies are implemented through local air districts. Local air districts vary in their support for landfill gas power plants: while my air district is very supportive of green energy, a few others hinder plants by requiring technologies that aren’t proven yet.
How did you get into the business of clean energy in the first place?
The opportunity came up to invest in Energy 2001 with a friend who would run the plant and I would take care of the legal side, but I eventually took over the business in its entirety. In the beginning, I was interested more in the business aspects rather than clean energy specifically, but I’ve always enjoyed helping people and believe that running a green business is a win-win. It’s possible to give back to the community and make money at the same. It’s not only about the dollar savings: investing in employees and community ultimately benefit business as well.
What do you see as the future for small green businesses such as yours?
We must invest in the next generation of renewable energy innovators, and help more people access careers in this growing industry. Promoting strong human capital for our industry is essential for the environment, but is also necessary for the long-term workforce needs of our industry. We recently organized a student-constructed solar array project, which provided local community college students (Sierra College) with hands-on solar experience and provides the local landfill with energy. Private-public ventures such as this and working with cities can help move clean energy and other sustainable industries forward. Companies also need to look internally to ensure they are creating a supportive culture. To grow clean energy and shape the future, we need to educate and create the next group of innovators (it’s not just about the bottom line).
Interview by L. DeMates