RNG’s Growing Role in Decarbonization Strategies

Renewable natural gas (RNG) has become an increasingly important part America's push toward clean energy sources and technology.
By Sam Lehr, David Cox and Mike Alaimo | August 26, 2020

Today, we know that the industrialization of our modern society has led to unintended consequences for our environment. Many of the means through which we power our buildings, drive our cars, and heat our spaces can have a negative impact on the planet, and on the health of those we care about.

Fortunately, much of this is changing through a global push toward clean energy sources and technology. More than ever, America is using its resourcefulness and ingenuity to usher in a cleaner future. Renewable natural gas (RNG) has become an increasingly important part of this future as a proven way to reduce our carbon footprint. Across the country, dairy farms, wastewater recovery facilities, landfills and other entities that process aggregated organic material are using methane capture and treating technologies to produce a sustainable energy resource that is displacing fossil fuel. Gasses that would otherwise be destroyed or enter the atmosphere as fugitive pollution are now purified for use in household and industrial thermal applications, to generate electricity, for vehicle fuel, and as a bio-feedstock. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas in the U.S. accounts for 29% of total electricity generation, 32% of industrial sector energy consumption, 24% of residential consumption, and 19% percent of commercial sector consumption. These numbers demonstrate that there is an undeniable opportunity to utilize gaseous waste streams to achieve deep decarbonization.

Over the past five years, RNG supply has increased by 291%. Despite that robust industry growth, much more can be done to increase consumer access to RNG. Programs that allow for utility procurement and distribution of RNG afford consumers the opportunity to decarbonize immediately, without the need to upgrade existing commercial or household appliances or industrial equipment. In Michigan, for example, DTE Energy offers its customers the option of paying $2.50 more on their monthly gas bill to participate in its BioGreenGas program and receive RNG from Michigan landfills and Wisconsin dairy farms. In Minnesota, Centerpoint Energy is working to provide a voluntary RNG program to 8,000 customers. Summit Utilities in Maine has partnered with the state’s dairy industry to provide locally produced RNG to its customers. Northwest Natural, Dominion, National Grid, SoCalGas and many other utilities throughout the country are offering or developing similar RNG options.

With increasing supply and awareness, interest in RNG is also growing for its potential contributions to organizational sustainability. RNG-generated electricity helps companies reduce their carbon footprint and transition to a sustainable, baseload source of clean power that compliments investments in intermittent renewable power sources. For organizations with operations that require significant gas consumption, such those using gas in industrial heating applications, RNG can serve as an immediate drop-in substitute, in whole or part, helping companies realize their sustainability goals while maintaining their existing equipment and processes.

As demand for RNG grows, the RNG Coalition is working with the Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System, or M-RETS, to expand the use of its renewable natural gas tracking system, and with Center for Resource Solutions on their Green-e® Renewable Fuels certification program. With these new tools for RNG tracking and certification, consumers can choose RNG with increasing confidence, knowing that it meets the highest standards for environmental responsibility and sustainability.

RNG also provides significant opportunity to lower the carbon intensity of U.S. transportation fuel, because it is the lowest-carbon energy source available for use in both combustion- and electric-based transportation. When measured by “cradle-to-grave” life cycle analyses, which include the carbon impacts of atmospheric carbon avoidance, methane emissions processing and transport, deployment in a natural gas or electric vehicles, and displacement of gasoline or diesel, RNG can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

When used as a transportation fuel, RNG offers communities fuel price stability and fuel security for critical public services, including emergency response, garbage collection and construction, as well as bus fleets that take children to school and residents to work. RNG also provides a secure fuel for the trucking sector—an industry that transports as much as 70% of the nation’s raw materials and goods to every corner of the country.

And despite what naysayers argue, supply isn’t a limiting factor. According to a study by QSS Group, funded by the U.S. DOE, RNG production potential from organic waste is nearly 10 billion diesel gallon equivalents, more than 25 percent of the 38 billion gallons of diesel consumed each year.

RNG is good for local economies, with more than 250,000 new jobs estimated from industry development. Every city and town, large and small, and every rural area in America produces waste that can be converted to RNG. And because RNG is transported through existing gas pipelines, expanded use of RNG does not require significant infrastructure investment.

Capturing biogas and upgrading it to RNG can also greatly improve on-farm economics. This is especially true of farms with livestock, particularly cattle, hogs and chickens. Moreover, by codigesting local food waste in on-farm anaerobic digesters, we create a more circular economy.

RNG is an integral part of the balanced portfolio of low-carbon technologies needed to realize a clean energy future. In a recent study by MJ Bradley and Associates, the benefits of using renewable biofuels was analyzed as a complementary strategy to electrification and other efficiency measures to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. The study found that, under moderately aggressive adoption scenarios, a combination of renewable biofuels and electrification yielded greater reductions in GHG, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter than either strategy alone.

As we work to achieve high-level reductions in atmospheric carbon and methane within the timeframe necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to employ every viable and effective tool at our disposal. RNG helps address the challenges presented by GHG emissions, fossil fuel consumption, and societal waste. As we progress in our journey to deep decarbonization, RNG will continue to play an increasingly important role.

Contact: Sam Lehr
Manager of Sustainability & Markets Policy
RNG Coalition