Steven Wilburn, chairman and chief executive of FirmGreen Inc., would love to do more projects in the United States. The Newport Beach, CA, renewable-energy company has developed a technology that converts dirty methane gas from decomposing landfill sites into clean and burnable methane.
Sergio Stacchini, president of Brazil’s Gás Verde,
with Steve Wilburn, of FirmGreen at the Novo
Gramacho project near Rio de Janiero
America’s 2,500 landfill sites produce about 37% of total gas emissions in the country, but FirmGreen focuses outside the borders. “It’s very difficult to do projects in our own backyard,” said Wilburn, who has been in the renewable energy business for 30 years. “It’s mainly because of credit constraints.”
FirmGreen’s newest project is one of the world’s largest dumps outside Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The oddly named Jardim Gramacho was closed in June, 2012, after 34 years of operation on ecologically sensitive wetlands. The Jardim Gramacho landfill, one of 6,000 in Brazil, was featured in a 2010 documentary called Waste land by Brazilian modern artist Vik Muniz. The film, which documents the lives of Jardim Gramacho’s garbage pickers, called catadores, won an award at Sundance in 2010 and was also nominated for an Academy Award.
FirmGreen won the contract to essentially scrub the dirty landfill methane, now being produced at the rate of about 20,000 cubic meters per hour, and convert it to 9,000 cubic metres of fuel-grade biomethane gas. The biogas is shipped via a 3.7-mile pipeline to a nearby refinery run by Petroléo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras), Brazil’s national oil-and-gas company.
Called the Novo Gramacho project, Wilburn said the environmental impact will be huge. Not only will the foul methane from the massive 600-acre landfill site be dramatically reduced, the biogas will replace approximately 10% of the natural gas derived from fossil-fuel sources being consumed at the Petrobras refinery. Total greenhouse-gas reductions, he noted, are estimated to be 1.4 million metric tons annually, roughly the equivalent of removing 280,000 cars from the road each year.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank provided a $48.6 million loan to the owner of the project, Brazil’s Gás Verde, marking the first time the development bank has financed a biogas reclamation and development project. The Ex-Im bank said the 12-year loan was vital because long-term financing for renewable-energy projects is limited in Brazil. As well, FirmGreen, a major beneficiary of the project, faced competition from European companies backed by their own government-run loan agencies.
Wilburn said the project should be in operation later this fall. “Within months, the Gás Verde project in Brazil will use FirmGreen technology to convert landfill gas to pipeline-quality natural gas.” He added the completed facility will set the standard to replicate at landfills worldwide, thus positioning FirmGreen as a leading exporter of green technology.
Sergio Stacchini, president of Brazil’s Gás Verde, stated: “We are dramatically reducing landfill emission, producing a cleaner, better product and improving the socio-economic status of the Gramacho area by creating jobs. It doesn’t get better than this.”
The benefits are also reaching back home to the United States. An expected 165 new jobs will be created at FirmGreen’s facilities and other U.S. companies. Guild Associates Inc., an engineering firm in Dublin, Ohio, is FirmGreen’s major subcontractor. The company fabricated the specialized gas-cleaning equipment and is also helping during the start-up of the biogas plant.
Besides CO2 “washing” — the process to clean dirty methane — FirmGreen also specializes in hydrogen production from renewable resources and fuel cell systems. Wilburn is the first to admit, however, that the Novo Gramacho project is a make-or-break deal for the green techology company and its 37 employees.
“A lot of eyes are on us now,” he said.