Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas Shares Perspective on RNG from Anaerobic Digestion
October 20, 2021 | Mariem Zaghdoudi | Education
We recently reached out to Sam Wade, the director of public policy at The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, to learn more about the opportunities and challenges associated with renewable natural gas from anaerobic digestion.
Previously, Wade was the chief of the Transportation Fuels Branch at the California Air Resources Board, where he oversaw the Low Carbon Fuels Standard Program for four years. He holds a bachelor of science and master of science in mechanical engineering as well as a master of public administration degree in environmental science and policy.
This blog post is the third installation of a blog series focused on renewable natural gas (RNG) from anaerobic digestion (AD). The first two posts, which are linked below, introduced the series and gave a 101 on renewable natural gas from anaerobic digestion technology.
Q. What are your organization’s goals in the RNG space? How does it work to achieve those goals?
A. Through effective advocacy and education, we are working to simultaneously reduce the environmental impacts of society’s organic waste and decarbonize conventional natural gas use through the sustainable development, deployment, and utilization of renewable gas. As a waste-derived, circular source of renewable energy, renewable natural gas (RNG) epitomizes sustainability and is a no-regrets solution uniquely positioned to achieve these dual benefits as part of a broader clean energy transition. Achieving these goals will require improved public awareness, increased policy support, and stakeholder collaboration.
To this end, the Coalition for RNG is focused on our Sustainable Methane Abatement & Recycling Timeline (SMART), an industry-wide initiative to capture and control the methane produced from more than 43,000 aggregated organic waste sites across North America by 2050, achieving meaningful benchmarks by 2025, 2030, and 2040.
We currently have 190 operating RNG facilities in North America, with another 230 additional projects under construction or in development. We expect to achieve our 2025 benchmark (for 300+ RNG projects) ahead of schedule.
Q. What are the biggest opportunities for RNG/biomethane as you see them?
A. RNG is very flexible and serves as a decarbonization strategy for a wide variety of applications, so it shines wherever storable, low-carbon, gaseous fuels are needed. The use of RNG to fuel natural gas vehicles that displace diesel in the transportation sector will remain a key near-term driver. The use of RNG by gas utilities to decarbonize their supply and deliver renewable energy to their customers will also be critical in the mid-term. Finally, the use of RNG as a resilient, storable, and dispatchable input for renewable power systems that are otherwise overly reliant upon highly intermittent resources, and the use of RNG in industrial applications that cannot be electrified, will be valuable in the long run.
Q. What are the biggest challenges?
A. One of the biggest challenges we consistently must contend with is correcting the misguided perception of RNG as a minor or secondary strategy—primarily due to misconceptions about the timeframe needed for success for other decarbonization and waste management strategies.
For example, critics of RNG often point out that biologically derived RNG is limited in supply based on the total amount of organic waste produced by human activity. Our industry does not view this as a negative situation—less waste is good, and we agree that RNG production should be lower in a hierarchy for reducing the environmental impact from waste after other options (such as reuse of food still fit for human or animal consumption) have been implemented. Similarly, we don’t oppose other methods to decarbonize heating and transport through efficiency and electrification, where appropriate (i.e., timely, feasible, cost-effective, reliable, etc.).
The challenge exists when unrealistic expectations about how quickly and affordably non-RNG strategies can be deployed politically impedes policy support for RNG growth or precludes RNG from helping various sectors decarbonize. Good public policy should incentivize RNG across all existing natural gas-consuming sectors in the near term—to achieve the critically-needed reductions in methane—and then allow RNG use to gradually be targeted, over time, toward the sectors that really need the unique characteristics of RNG as a gaseous fuel. Ultimately, we envision RNG being a big part of a more efficient gas system that operates solely on renewable, carbon-neutral, or carbon-negative gaseous fuels (i.e., RNG, renewable hydrogen, etc.).
Q. What are the benefits that can come out of RNG projects beyond greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction?
A. RNG can directly facilitate or serve as a stepping-stone to several non-climate environmental benefits. The ability to turn waste methane into a source of renewable energy provides an incentive and a new funding stream to better manage the underlying waste beyond its GHG benefits. Furthermore, valuable byproducts of RNG production and organic waste processing can be created, such as organic fertilizer, compost, and animal bedding.
The sale of RNG, and these other important circular economy byproducts, provides revenue that can be used to support municipalities and farmers as they make additional upgrades that improve environmental conditions for the local ecosystem and population. This solution is particularly important given the impacts that poorly managed organic waste processing facilities can sometimes have on surrounding communities.
Q. What can states do to promote RNG projects?
A. The most helpful policies that can be used to promote the use of RNG include a renewable gas standard (a renewable portfolio standard covering gas procurement by utilities), a low-carbon fuel standard (a technology-neutral tradeable performance standard for the transportation sector), appropriate tariffs that enable utilities to interconnect RNG, and tax incentives that support anaerobic digestion and RNG projects.
The RNG industry strongly supports the use of lifecycle analysis for all bioenergy resources, which creates a facility-specific carbon intensity score that considers all GHG emissions and reductions throughout the fuel’s lifecycle. While all carbon dioxide emissions from waste-derived RNG are derived from recent biogenic carbon and are therefore carbon neutral, various methods of creating and transporting RNG range from low-carbon to carbon-negative on a lifecycle basis—based on other inputs such as consumption of electricity from the largely fossil fuel-based grid during the upgrading process and methane leakage.
Accounting for, and comparing, the lifecycle impacts of various energy resources for full transparency, while also considering the unique positive environmental externalities facilitated by RNG production and use is important to ensure our industry grows in the most sustainable way possible.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
A. The Coalition for RNG represents and provides policy advocacy and public education for the RNG industry in North America. Our membership is comprised of leading companies operating across each sector of the industry, including producers of 98 percent of the RNG in the United States and Canada, and airports, ports, cities, counties, municipalities, colleges, universities, and other end-users as well.
We invite anyone interested in supporting our shared industry mission and SMART Initiative to join our coalition—or to attend one of our three annual industry events: RNG SUMMIT (mid-year policy update), RNG WORKS (technical workshop & trade expo), RNG CONFERENCE (annual gathering of industry leaders).
For more information about RNG, our organization, industry, or events, please visit RNGCoalition.com
Despite being a viable decarbonization strategy that reduces GHG emissions from organic waste and creates revenue for farmers and municipalities, RNG from anaerobic digestion continues to be held back by the lack of supporting policies. Policies that could bolster the use of RNG include clean fuels policies like the Future Fuels Act (currently being considered by Minnesota legislators) and renewable gas standards. Our last blog in this series will further explore these policies.
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