Harry Van Dessel is a guy who loves cool projects. The civil engineer spent 25 years in the Navy working on piers and bridges and runways. "We did lots of exciting stuff," he says. But nothing tops the project he's working on now—the UNH methane pipeline, a trash-to-energy initiative that has catapulted the university into the national spotlight. "This is right up there in exciting new technologies," says Van Dessel, who can explain, in detail, what directional drilling is, how it works, and how it's possible for a 12-inch diameter pipe to run underground for more than a dozen miles through varying terrain, including wetlands, leaving the most sensitive natural areas undisturbed.
Van Dessel, who is executive director of facilities design and construction at UNH, is especially proud of the environmental efforts that have characterized the pipeline undertaking. "Usually conservation commissions dislike projects like this one," he says. "But we've gotten support in all four towns—Rochester, Dover, Madbury and Durham." There were also planning board and town council meetings to attend in each town, air-emissions and wetlands permits to secure and countless presentations to be made. Despite the complexity, the level of cooperation has been remarkable. "It's been universally well received," says Paul Chamberlin, vice president for energy and campus development. "Everyone could see the unique aspects of the project, how it was really the right thing to do."
Chamberlin says the stars were aligned for the $45 million trash-to-energy dream to become a reality. At Waste Management's Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, N.H., most of the methane gas, a byproduct of decomposing garbage, was simply being burned off into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, UNH's energy costs were skyrocketing. Why not replace expensive natural gas with the excess methane gas, a renewable resource? To do this, of course, the methane gas would have to be transported. That's where the pipeline—better known around UNH as the EcoLine™—came in. And the directional drilling, which used a series of drills up to 2,000 feet long to burrow underneath, rather than through, sensitive wetlands. Even the Cocheco River was left undisturbed, thanks to the technique, which took the pipe down and then all the way under the riverbed before continuing on the other side.
Despite record snowfall in December, the pipeline will finish just about on schedule. The next step will be to build the processing plant at the landfill that will clean the gas and raise its energy content before sending it through the pipeline. The gas will then travel from the landfill to UNH's co-generation plant, where it will turn a turbine to produce electricity for the campus. That process will give off heat, which will be fed into a boiler and turned into steam to heat the buildings. A second turbine for the UNH plant is also in the works, which, in warmer months, will use gas not needed for heating to create electricity that UNH can sell back to the grid.
"This is far and away the largest project of this type in the country," says Chamberlin. "In Los Angeles, where UCLA has a smaller source of landfill gas, they use 500 cubic feet per minute. We'll use about 3,000 cubic feet per minute—and we're about half the size of UCLA." Which is to say, the methane gas project will have a huge impact on the energy picture at UNH. Predictions are that the university will meet 80-85 percent of its energy needs with the methane gas—and save $30-$40 million over the next 20 years. UNH will also reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 57 percent compared to 1990 levels. By spring 2009, when the whole system will be up and running, UNH will be the first campus in the nation using landfill gas as its primary energy source.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents