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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com. For today's second guest, we're gonna share an interview from The EnergyMakers Show when our guest was David Unger, director of Waste Management Renewable Energy, LLC. We enter the discussion where I asked David to tell us about Waste Management, Inc.
David: Okay. Waste Management, Inc. is North America's largest waste management and environmental services company. We have over 44,000 employees and over 21 million customers.
Russ: Okay. Now, you mentioned the "environmental" word there, and I know that you are the director of renewable energy with Waste Management. Take us down that path a little bit. I think that will surprise people.
David: Yes, I'm director of marketing and development for our renewable energy program, specifically landfill gas to energy. So we have over 300 landfills throughout the country, North America. And what we do is we collect the landfill gas that's naturally produced in a landfill, and we use it for beneficial-use projects, such as producing power or energy and producing liquid fuels or gases – fuels to use in our fleet.
Russ: My goodness, those are quite a few categories of energy right there, but describe what a landfill production of this gas looks like?
David: Okay. So imagine a landfill. It could be 100 acres. When we take in the waste from households, there's a lot of organic matter in there. So when we fill the landfill up, we actually install gas-recovery wells that, as the methane is produced, we actually pull the gas out of the landfill that's produced naturally in the landfill through natural, biological breakdown of the organic matter. And then we clean that landfill gas, and we use it as fuel.
Russ: What might that look like from a landfill perspective? Would I see a well?
David: Yes. You actually just see the top part of these gas wells. They will stick about six feet out of the ground. You'll see a valve and a wellhead. What you don't see is there's probably about 100 feet of pipe that goes into the landfill, and the bottom, probably 70 percent, is perforated, and that's when we put a vacuum on the well. We actually pull the methane out of the landfill as it's generated.
Russ: Okay. Now, that's impressive, so but more impressive is what you said that you do with the methane. There are several categories of use for the company, right?
David: Yes. The primary use for us is we take the methane. We clean it up, and we produce electricity. We have over 80 power plants that use the landfill gas as fuel. We use either reciprocating engines – much like a giant car engine – or a gas turbine, so –
Russ: Okay. And you do it right there next to the landfill?
David: Yes. So we will build the power plant at the best spot near the landfill to maximize the value of the gas. From landfill gas, we produce probably close to 300 megawatts of electricity. That can power a little over the equivalent of 400,000 households.
Russ: My goodness.
David: So we sell it to companies. We sell it to individual, private companies. We sell it to utilities, or we sell it to local utilities or co-ops.
Russ: Okay. That's a pretty significant production there, I might add. That's cool. Now, I also know, from doing a little research, that there's other ways that you produce energy other than just these wells in the landfill.
David: Yeah, so waste management is the whole owner of Wheelabrator Technologies. Wheelabrator takes the waste, and instead of putting it in a landfill, they combust the waste. They have over 17 facilities throughout the U.S., and they produce over 600 megawatts of clean energy.
Russ: Wow. And how do you say that again? Wheelabrator?
David: Wheelabrator Technologies.
Russ: Okay. And is that a Waste Management company? Or is it like a partner company?
David: It's a Waste Management fully owned subsidiary.
Russ: Okay. Now, we're getting to the point of how you got on my radar, how Waste Management got on my radar. I heard, through a brand management person here, that Waste Management, according to official documents, produces more energy than the whole solar collection, today, produces in the United States. Is that right?
David: That's correct. You know, solar's catching up quick, but the install capacity for solar is actually higher. But the great thing about both landfill gas to energy and combustion of waste to energy is that the availability and capacity rates are way above 90 percent.
Russ: Wow. Wow.
David: So we are a base-load renewable.
Russ: I'm certain this doesn't have a big, huge impact, but it seems like there's almost a debate on where most of your revenue comes from. You might be considered more of an energy company than a waste collection company. Is it anywhere close?
David: We have been growing very quickly. We have said about 17 percent of our revenue now, which is over $13 billion, is now coming from waste-based energies and renewable energy.
Russ: Okay. That's so impressive. I'm embarrassed that I didn't know that before, but I think there's probably a lot of people that didn't know it, and that's very impressive. And that's the mission of Waste Management, right? To take waste, create energy, and to really sort of be very environmental friendly and also to actually renew some of the waste into other products, as well, correct?
David: Right. You know, waste is not becoming waste to us anymore. Waste is a resource. So we look at where we can get the most value from that resource. We are increasing our recycling. We're the largest recycler of municipal waste in North America. We, then, can repurpose some of that recycling. We try to collect all the energy we can from the gas, and we try to promote new technologies to maximize the value for the wastes that we process.
Russ: Okay. Now, I'm certainly familiar with the fact that you do have some competitors, even if you are the largest in the country. Are some of those competitors following you, as well, into this sort of energy creation category?
David: Yes, I think we being the leaders in the industry, we've really promoted renewable energy and these advanced technologies. But most of the other competitors have third parties or developers do the projects on their facilities. Waste Management looks at renewable energy and maximizing the value of the waste as a core business. So we build our own power plants. We operate our own power plants, and we sell our own power.
Russ: Okay. Now, I would imagine – and obviously, you might not be able to tell me if this is true – but there might be other categories of energy creation being planned for the future for Waste Management. Would that be accurate?
David: That's very accurate. One thing is we're a large energy user. We have one of the largest fleets out there. We have over 18,000 collection vehicles, and those are the big garbage trucks you see with the "WM" rolling down the road every day. And they use a lot of fuel, so we looked at the waste management and our fuel use and said, "What we wanna do is see if we can offset some of that fuel use or find a more effective way to do that."
Russ: Okay. And are you doing that today?
David: Yes. A big push for us has been converting our vehicles and changing over our fleet to natural gas-powered fleet. So right now, we have 1800 natural gas-powered collection vehicles, which makes us the largest, heavy-duty natural gas-powered fleet in the United States, and we are building that fleet as fast as we can.
Russ: Well, that's real impressive, but I'm curious, what motivated this movement to cleaner energy?
David: Well, two things. One is because of the Shell boom, natural gas prices have reduces, but secondarily, the natural-gas vehicles are quieter. They have less emissions, and they are lower maintenance.
Russ: Wow, okay. Really cool. So what's in the future in this direction? And what are your challenges?
David: Well, our challenges are we're trying to buy as many new vehicles as we can. We're limited by infrastructure. So because that is, we're actually building 25 new fueling stations ourselves to meet our own need for natural gas-fueling vehicles.
Russ: Impressive. Just a question out of the blue, would you let other companies use your fueling stations?
David: Yes. A number of our fueling stations that we've just built are open to the public.
Russ: Okay. So you're actually buying natural gas to power those? There's no way to use your methane gas to power these vehicles, as well?
David: Oh, there is. So we already have one project at our Altamont facility, where we take the landfill gas. We clean it up. We then liquefy it, and then we use the liquefied natural gas in our own garbage trucks to run our own garbage trucks.
Russ: Wow. Well, that sounds real interesting, Dave. But is there more?
David: Yeah, so we've taken an active role in developing and working industry technology partners to get the most out of waste. So we are working on clean tech. We're investing in dozens of companies to find better uses for waste.
Russ: Okay. So Waste Management is almost like a venture capital fund for some of these very progressive, clean energy initiatives?
David: Yes. We have an organic-growth group specifically designed to look at all the technologies out there and assess them and invest in the ones that best suit Waste Management's goals.
Russ: Well, I would sense that there's a lot of pride being part of Waste Management and a company that's very successful, very large, and heading in a very environmentally friendly direction.
David: Well, I think we looked at the business a few years ago and said, "What do people want? What do our customers want?" And our customers wanted to be more environmentally friendly. We thought the business was gonna move that way, and it's been very productive and very successful for us to move in the direction our customers wanted.
Russ: Well, Dave, thank you so much for sharing this cool story with us today.
David: Oh, you're very welcome, glad you came, and I'm glad that people can learn about what Waste Management's doing.
Russ: Okay. And that wraps up our discussion with David Unger. You can watch The EnergyMakers Show each week by going to the theenergymakers.com, and this is The BusinessMakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com.