Two regional facilities produce enough electricity to power several thousand homes, or offset municipal power bills by hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
A third facility produces enough heating fuel to power the industrial process of a neighboring business.
They aren't power plants. They're landfills.
And in the wake of the long-stalled trash-to-ethanol proposal in Lake County, the managers of two of the region's largest landfills point out they already have a viable waste-to-energy process.
When Northwest Indiana trash slides out of semitrailers and into the Liberty Landfill near Monticello, a portion of it is on its way to the power grid.
As in all landfills, garbage at the Liberty facility decomposes over time, creating methane gas.
Most landfills, including Liberty, use pipes connected to special torches that divert the gas away from the landfill and burn it up to reduce odors and potentially dangerous flammable build-up within the landfills.
But a portion of Liberty's methane is funneled into two on-site plants where it is cooled and then used as the fuel for eight massive V-16 engines, said Lisa Disbrow, spokeswoman for the landfill's owner, Waste Management.
Those engines produce six megawatts of energy, or enough to power about 5,000 area homes annually, according to the company.
The two landfill power plants are online and producing electricity about 98 percent of the time, said Gene Klisiak, Liberty's district manager. That's a higher production rate than solar or wind-generated power, which rely on weather, he said.
Munster's municipal-owned landfill, now closed, also has latched on to the methane-to-energy concept.
A $5 million project at the landfill -- built recently with a 50/50 matching grant of local and federal dollars -- will generate enough electricity to offset the town's power bill by about $350,000 per year, Assistant Town Manager Clay Johnson said.
The 1.1 megawatts of power generated by the Munster facility annually is sold back to NIPSCO, and the town estimates it should recoup its costs associated with the methane-to-energy project in about seven years, Johnson said.
Economic development, trash-style
The Newton County Landfill, owned and operated by Republic Services, also has found a way to harvest its methane gas for a useful commodity -- though not to generate electricity.
Not many businesses seek out a mountain of trash for a neighbor, but in 2010, egg-carton manufacturer, Urban Forest Recyclers, built a facility bordering Newton County''s Landfill, drawn in by the promise of cheap, renewable methane.
A special plant at the landfill draws in the methane, cools and filters it and then pipes it out to Urban Forest, which fuels its heaters that dry out the recycled cardboard used in producing its egg cartons.
Tony Schroeder, Republic Services division manager, said the landfill has the capacity to provide similar amounts of methane to as many as 10 other businesses, creating an economic development incentive for certain companies to locate in Newton County.
While Munster Town Council President David Nellans is proud of the harnessing of waste-to-energy in Munster, he also believes there are more promising alternatives for the future of garbage disposal.
Nellans has been a longtime proponent of the proposed Schneider trash-to-ethanol facility that would aim to convert the county's carbon-based garbage into an alternative biofuel.
"This (methane-to-electricity) is the very least we can do in Munster," Nellans said. "What we really need to do is seek out opportunities for disposing of our garbage without just putting it in the ground."
But the Lake County trash-to-ethanol proposal has been mired in failures by developers to secure financing, land or permits needed to build the commercially unproven facility.
"The big challenge (with waste-to-energy) is whether it is economically and commercially viable and can handle the tonnages (of trash)," Waste Management's Disbrow said.