Anchorage's gassy landfill isn't just letting its methane blow in the wind anymore. Since January, methane from the Anchorage Municipal Solid Waste Landfill has been processed and sent less than a mile away to the Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson's Gas Waste-to-Energy plant. The new plant takes methane that would have been burned off and converts it to electricity that powers the Army side of the joint base.

The $30 million plant built by Doyon Utilities, which is contracting with JBER, is exceeding expectations, according to Bob Zacharski, site manager for Doyon Utilities.

Anchorage's landfill has turned out be gassier than expected, emitting 2,050 cubic feet of methane a minute, of which the plant uses 1,800 cubic feet, said plant operator Greg Mitchell. The remaining 250 cubic feet is burned off, a prospect the rest of the gas would face if not for the power plant.

With the landfill expected to receive trash another 40 years, Mitchell is excited about its methane prospects. "We like people with horses," he joked.

Zacharski said Doyon is paying the city an estimated $50 million for 20 years of gas (prices fluctuate slightly based on Henry Hub pricing). But even $50 million is significantly cheaper than what it would cost the base to buy natural gas to supply the base's power plant. Zacharski estimates it will save the base $30 million over the same time period.

The plant is in the process of installing a fifth generator, an addition that wasn't expected for another five years. Instead, the plant was ready for the fifth generator after just eight months of operation because the Anchorage landfill produced more methane than expected.

Zacharski said the plant can handle a sixth generator, which is normally scheduled for installation after 10 years of operation. That timetable could be pushed up, based on gas supplies, he said.

Today, the plant produces half of the energy consumed by the Fort Richardson side of the base, or about 25 percent of JBER's electricity. When the fifth generator comes online this summer, 65 to 70 percent of Fort Richardson's power demand should be covered, according to Greg Mitchell, power plant operator. Today's production of 5.6 megawatts an hour will rise to 7.1.

Overall, its a relatively small amount of electricity. By comparison, ML&P and Chugach's newest power plant, the Southcentral Power Project, is capable of producing 183 megawatts of power.

The rest of the base, including the Elmendorf Air Force side. is powered by ML&P.

Gas waste-to-energy not only makes the base more sustainable, as mandated by executive orders from President Obam; it also has national-security ramifications. In the event of a widespread ML&P outage, the plant, coupled with a backup 9-megawatt emergency diesel power plant, would supply nearly all of Fort Richardson's power.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com