RNG: Most Efficient Approach to Decarbonizing Buildings

Critics of natural gas have begun to call for 100 percent electrification of buildings to reduce GHG emissions from the sector.The better approach is to support avenues that facilitate the reduction of emissions from all types of energy.
By Marcus Gillette | March 07, 2019

Critics of natural gas in markets scattered across the U.S. have begun to call for 100 percent electrification of buildings to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector. They also often claim that it will benefit low-income and minority communities. But the facts are to the contrary, and instead show that a rigid call for electrified buildings as the sole way to reduce emissions is misguided.
We should applaud the end goal of decarbonization. It’s possible for our building sector, and we are all worthy of reduced emissions and increasingly cleaner, healthier air. However, requiring across-the-board electrification of buildings limits consumer choice. It’s also incredibly costly for residents and small businesses, and therefore will not help low-income families as the diehards of electrification claim.

The better approach is to support avenues that facilitate the reduction of emissions from all types of energy. This enables the energy used to heat buildings to increasingly come from cleaner production streams, while allowing individuals, families and businesses the liberty to act on their renewable energy preferences: clean electricity when the building warrants it and customers so choose; and renewable gas for heating when citizens prefer it, and in buildings already equipped to heat with natural gas. 

People deserve the right to consider their circumstances and location, and to ultimately choose the best clean energy option for their home or business. Statistics show that, predominantly, this preference will be to choose natural gas—an energy that, like electricity, is becoming more and more renewable.

For example, studies in southern California show that a majority of regional residents prefer natural gas to heat their homes. A poll by the California Building Industry Association last year showed just one in 10 voters would choose a home with all-electric appliances. In a market that proved in last November’s election to be one of the country’s more progressive regions, just 10 percent of respondents want to heat with electricity.

Like consumers, chefs prefer natural gas in restaurants, too. A survey conducted for the Florida Public Utilities Co. showed that 98 percent of surveyed chefs said they prefer gas as their “primary energy source for their primary cooking equipment.”

At a much lower cost than it would require to convert all buildings to electric appliances, we can more efficiently achieve even greater GHG reductions by heating buildings with increasing amounts of renewable natural gas (RNG or biomethane)  produced from our existing, recurring organic waste in wastewater and landfills, and waste from agriculture and livestock.

Critics say we can’t feasibly produce enough renewable gas to make a big enough impact. In fact, the numbers say we don’t actually need as much as one might think to make the same impact. A 2018 study by Navigant Consulting found that using RNG from organic waste to replace just 16 percent of the fossil natural gas consumed in our most populous state would achieve similar GHG reductions to electrifying all of California’s buildings.

This is achievable. In the transportation sector, RNG is already replacing fossil gas, and now fuels about 30 percent of the medium- and heavy-duty natural gas trucks and buses across the U.S. The California Air Resources Board identifies RNG as the lowest carbon-intense fuel under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. In terms of affordability, the U.S. EPA concluded that RNG is among the most cost-effective biofuels used to attain  GHG reductions targeted by the Renewable Fuel Standard. 

The RNG strategy for decarbonizing buildings is the more affordable solution. Exclusive, 100 percent electrification is far costlier than substituting RNG for fossil-derived natural gas to decrease GHGs from homes and businesses. Navigant Consulting found that heating buildings with more RNG is three times more cost-effective than an all-electric strategy would be in California. 

Mandating electrification of buildings will not save low-income families money. CBIA studies reveal the high cost of electrifying homes. In homes with existing natural gas appliances, replacing those appliances for all-electric alternatives would cost families up to $6 billion annually just in California, and require most buildings to undergo expensive retrofits. That’s an almost $900 increase in annual energy costs for every family in the state.

Examining the impacts of a full electrification approach in markets across the U.S., a 2018 study prepared by ICF showed that “the total economy-wide increase in energy-related costs (residential consumer costs plus incremental power generation and transmission costs) from policy-driven residential electrification ranges from $590 billion to $1.2 trillion.” The study goes on to say that this equates to between $1,060 and $1,420 per year in additional cost for each affected household.

In summary, increasing proportions of renewable gas to supplant fossil gas is the preferred—and plainly, better—approach to decreasing emissions from the buildings sector, with wheels already in motion. Restricting renewable energy options for businesses and homes by mandating complete electrification does not get us to the goal of reduced GHG in the most efficient, cost-effective manner, nor the manner that energy consumers prefer.

Author: Marcus Gillette
Director of Public Affairs, Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas
[email protected]