When Joel Zylstra ’87 drives past a landfill, he doesn’t see and smell a small mountain of buried trash. He sees an energy source that can fuel factory turbines and boilers and set an electrical grid buzzing. 

Zylstra is chief operating officer of Granger Energy, which grew out of his father-in-law’s business, Granger Waste Management Co. After his graduation as an engineer, Zylstra went to work at the company’s two Lansing, Mich., landfills. It was a time when landfills everywhere were growing and regulations governing them were becoming stricter. Larger landfills, for example, were required to burn off, or flare, the methane gas produced when organic waste deteriorates. 

A forward-thinking engineer who was mentoring the young Zylstra saw opportunity in the situation. He proposed a novel idea: that Granger not waste the gas its landfills produced by burning it off, but rather turn it into useable energy. 

A Granger landfill gas-to-energy project was the first of its kind east of the Mississippi. Gas collected from a landfill was compressed, filtered and dried, then piped to a nearby factory and fed into its boilers. When that factory closed, Zylstra and the Granger engineering team applied emerging technology to turn the landfill gas into electricity, which they sold to a public utility company. 

Government regulation again helped boost Granger’s new enterprise. Michigan adopted legislation that required power utilities to diversify their sources of electricity. “That opened up the marketplace for us,” Zylstra said. 

To date, the company has partnered with six other Michigan landfills to turn their gas into electricity, much of it sold to Consumers Energy and to the Michigan Public Power Agency. 

“We developed a successful template that could be applied anywhere,” Zylstra said. 

By the mid-1990s, Granger Energy was expanding beyond Michigan. It now owns and operates 15 gas-to-energy projects in six states. At some projects, the landfill gas generates electricity; at others, it provides fuel to factories. It does both at an extensive project in Pennsylvania that connects two landfills. 

At all the projects, Zylstra takes great satisfaction in their stewardship. While landfill gas is about 50 percent methane, compared with the 85 percent methane in natural gas, “It burns about as cleanly,” Zylstra said, “and it’s substantially cleaner than coal or oil. As long as we have landfills, we owe it to ourselves to recover the methane they produce and convert it into a resource.” 

Granger’s original Lansing, Mich., project has been expanded three times and now generates enough electricity to supply 4,700 homes. When fully operational, the Pennsylvania project will offset the use of almost 1.8 million barrels of oil per year. 

“Landfill gas will ever only account for a small percentage of our total electricity production,” Zylstra noted. “But unlike other renewable energy sources—wind and solar, for example—our projects are online 99 percent of the time. An active landfill is always generating methane gas.” 

He’s certain his is a growth industry: “I think in the next decade or so the vast majority of landfills are going to have projects on them.” 

Zylstra’s work these days is to see that a good number of those projects are Granger projects. “Being a COO instead of an engineer has been a big step out of my comfort zone,” he said. “But starting and growing a business where there was nothing, and turning a resource that would otherwise be wasted into a useable commodity—that’s been exciting.”