Renewable Biogas Gains Ground
With all of the big news surrounding solar and wind energy the past several years, the idea of renewable natural gas—a synthetic biogas obtained from biomass—has taken a bit of a backseat. But recent developments suggest this renewable’s time may be coming.
Earlier this month, an article in Biomass Magazine reported that the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change announced they’ve slated $100 million to foster growth of renewable natural gas (RNG) locally. Natural gas distribution utilities in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are already combining RNG into their pipeline systems, and Canada’s Compressed Gas Association (CGA) says that 11 RNG projects in the country will be operational by the end of 2017. The American Gas Association (AGA) has also jumped on board with the movement, citing a belief that RNG gives us a way to secure economic growth and protect the environment at the same time. These moves by the Canadian government and the AGA are just two among many emerging signs that biogas could be the future of energy.
What is RNG?
Considered a subset of synthetic natural gas (SNG), RNG, or biogas, is a mixture of various gases with a small carbon footprint. The gases are produced by anaerobic digestion (the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen) via materials, such as agricultural and municipal waste, raw sewage, manure, plant material and food waste.
What makes RNG so great?
Compatibility. The best thing about RNG is that it’s completely interchangeable with non-renewable natural gas. As a biomethane produced from biomass, RNG is not only carbon neutral, but it is totally compatible with the U.S. pipeline infrastructure. This compatibility extends to existing distribution systems for homes, businesses and heavy industries, which is the main reason the AGA is so supportive of its use.
Cost. The costs to produce, clean and inject RNG into existing natural gas distribution systems is competitive with that of other renewable resources. This competitive cost was a significant factor in Ontario’s decision to invest in RNG. CGA found that RNG costs $10–$25 per gigajoule (GJ), which is about 4–9 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). At the same time, recent contracts for utility-scale solar and wind projects in the country have rounded out at $19 and $44 per GJ (7–16 cents per kWh).
Lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions. The methane produced by animal waste and other sources are often captured to produce RNG. Because gases that would have entered directly into earth’s atmosphere are instead combusted as RNG, the final release of GHG is about 21 times less potent. The AGA puts it this way, “The use of Renewable Gas represents the recycling of carbon that is already circulating in the environment, whereas burning a fossil fuel represents the release of new carbon emissions that were previously sequestered in the earth.”
Domestic Production. Increasing the domestic production of RNG transportation fuel could allow us to supplement oil and other foreign-produced fuels.
Waste Management Improvements. Commonly, agricultural animal wastes are collected and processed to make RNG. This process reduces groundwater and waterway contamination by limiting run-off.
Revenue for American Farmers. RNG could allow poultry, hog and dairy farmers to generate significant revenue, simultaneously providing a solution to one of their greatest waste problems.
New Domestic Jobs. Growth in RNG promises to bring the development and deployment of all kinds of new technologies, which, in turn, will create new domestic jobs we can’t export.
As mentioned, RNG is 100-percent interchangeable with non-renewable natural gas. Therefore, its applications are just as vast and include electricity generation, space heating, process heating and biomass with carbon capture and storage. Because RNG can be converted into liquefied natural gas, it also holds great potential as an alternative transportation fuel. Studies show that transportation fuel in the form of RNG could fetch a price comparable to gasoline and diesel in the sector, effectively replacing these fuels.
The AGA recently initiated an advocacy campaign to grow RNG in the U.S. As part of this campaign, they developed a list of policy changes they suggest will expand the domestic use of the fuel. Discussing some of these changes, the organization says, “The playing field needs to be leveled so that Renewable Gas is valued, supported and incentivized in ways equal to renewable electricity or liquid transportation fuel. As a first step, Congress should create an investment tax credit for facilities that produce renewable pipeline quality gas.” They add that America’s pipeline infrastructure should “[…] facilitate the purchase and transfer of Renewable Gas in order to more easily meet local, state or federal goals for renewable fuels.”
On its website, the AGA offers a conclusion:
“[…] attention is turning […] to the role that Renewable Gas will also play in achieving the critical objectives of a clean energy economy: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating thousands of sustainable jobs and increasing the diversity of the domestic energy supply portfolio, thereby enhancing America’s energy security. At its full potential, renewable gas could well be the most reliable and the most cost-effective renewable energy source.”
Certainly a conclusion worth noting.
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