Tester pays visit to power-producing landfill in Flathead

The Missoulian

by Vince Devlin

KALISPELL – Not many American politicians spent Presidents Day at the dump, but U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had his reasons for swinging into the Flathead County Landfill Monday morning.

It’s the only one in Montana where the garbage is turned into electricity.

Well, technically, the garbage turns into methane gas and carbon dioxide, and that happens whether we like it or not.

The Flathead Electric Cooperative turns the methane into electricity, and Tester wanted a firsthand look at the plant on the edge of the landfill.

“Very impressive,” the first-term senator decided. “They’re taking methane, which is a liability, gathering and collecting it and turning it into electricity, which is an asset, at a reasonable cost.”

Plant operator Paul Ziesing gave Tester the tour, explaining how the methane that this or any other landfill produces was at one time simply a groundwater and air pollutant.

State and federal regulations dealing with methane emissions eventually required the county to do something about it. Approximately 10 years ago wells were drilled, pipes put in place, and the methane collected.

Until last summer the gas was simply routed to one spot and “flared off” at the landfill.

Today, instead of turning into a lone flame at the dump, the methane provides enough kilowatts to power 800 homes, and has the capacity to double that.

“They’re taking advantage of a bad situation to put more juice on the grid, which is a good thing,” Tester said.


The Flathead Electric Cooperative board of trustees took an interest in the technology, and Flathead County was quite cooperative.

“There’s growing interest in renewable energy,” explained Cheryl Talley, director of energy and member services for Flathead Electric Cooperative. “As the largest co-op in Montana, we were interested in setting an example of what can be done.”

The technology has been around for two or more decades, but had never been tried in Montana.

With 42 methane wells already in place at the landfill, it was just a matter “of routing the methane to the engine instead of the flare,” said Flathead County Public Works Director David Prunty.

The county leased land at the landfill to the co-op for free, and the co-op used what are known as CREBs – Clean Renewable Energy Bonds – to finance the $3.5 million plant.

The bonds carry a 0 percent interest rate with an estimated 15-year payback.

The landfill, meantime, is estimated to have another half-century of capacity, and as the mountain of garbage grows – and decays – so, too, will grow the amount of methane gas produced.

The $1 million Caterpillar G3520C reciprocating engine generator that turns the methane into electricity – “It looks like a locomotive engine,” Tester decided – is capable of producing 1,600 kilowatts, and the plant was built large enough to accommodate a second generator if the amount of methane gas produced in the coming decades at the landfill warrants it.

Two generators operating at full capacity would mean that decaying garbage in the Flathead Valley was supplying enough electricity to power more than 3,000 homes.


Tester seemed most impressed with the idea that the technology was turning a negative into a positive.

“We’re just one creek adding to a big pond of power,” Ziesing said, but this is a creek that starts out dirty at its source, and ends up considerably cleaner by the end. Landfills are the largest single source of human-based methane emissions in America, responsible for 40 percent a year. Methane has a global warming potential 23 times that of carbon dioxide – the byproduct, along with water, of the combustion that takes place.

Prunty said it made sense for the county to help the electric cooperative make the plant happen.

Flathead County spent “a couple million dollars” putting the methane collection system in place back in the 1990s, he said.

“The county has to stay in compliance,” Prunty said. “To be able to do this, to make energy instead of just flaring it off, is fantastic. The technology has been around for a long time, but by Montana standards, we’re ahead of the game.”

On Monday, Tester also toured Stolze Lumber in Columbia Falls and Timberline Tools in Kalispell before joining the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce for lunch.

He was in Missoula and Hamilton last weekend, and will visit Helena, Billings, Lewistown, Great Falls and Bozeman while Congress is in recess this week.