WESTMINSTER – Scores of wells, made from 8-inch pipe, plunge deep into a hill in this Central Massachusetts town, searching for naturally occurring gas. It’s no surprise that they find it.

The hill’s lush green slopes cover a landfill, where tons of decomposing garbage belch methane gas. Once upon a time, the stinky byproduct was simply burned off. But today, it fuels a power plant generating enough electricity for 3,000 homes.

Waste Management Inc. of Houston, the nation’s biggest landfill operator, just opened the squat, two-story plant this fall, piping methane from the landfill to drive two generators, each producing 1.6 megawatts of electricity. The plant, which has the capacity to quadruple the current electrical output, is the latest in Massachusetts to turn landfill gas into energy and part of a broader movement to reclaim methane from human and animal wastes.

More than 400 gas-to-energy plants now operate at US landfills, and that number has the potential to more than double, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In Massachusetts, 17 gas-to-energy plants generate enough power for an estimated 60,000 homes, and at least three more landfills are candidates for new plants, according to state and federal environmental agencies.

Sewage is the feedstock for methane at the Deer Island treatment plant in Boston Harbor, where the gas is used to make one-fifth of the electricity consumed by the power-hungry treatment process. In Vermont, four dairy farms are tapping methane-producing cow manure to generate most of the electricity for 4,600 homes. Central Vermont Public Service, a Rutland utility, projects a dozen manure-to-energy plants will operate in the state by 2010 under a three-year-old program known as “Cow Power.”

The program’s motto: “Energy happens.”

“People looked at us like we were crazy when we launched Cow Power,” said Steve Costello, spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service. “But we’ve had no problem finding demand for the electricity produced by the farms.”

Full Story: http://www.boston.com/business/globe/articles/2007