Renewable Natural Gas is Heating Up

Ken Kilzer, Building Structural Industry Expert

October 29, 2019

After years of modest progress, Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) now appears ready to benefit from policies designed to help the industry reduce more greenhouse gas emissions.

Olsson has recently worked on RNG projects in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. As an indication of our growing expertise in the industry, one of North America’s top RNG developers invited us to co-present with them during a national RNG technical conference this fall.

This comes as some states work to help the industry produce more RNG from biogas generated through anerobic decomposition of organic waste in landfills, livestock lagoons, and wastewater treatment facilities. After the biogas undergoes a cleaning process that isolates the methane content, the resulting RNG can be transported in the existing gas pipeline networks and used just like geologic natural gas for heating, electrical generation, and transportation.

Methane is colorless, odorless, and burns much cleaner than fossil fuels, but it’s also a powerful greenhouse gas (at least 20 times more potent than carbon-dioxide.) Capturing and burning methane is far preferable to dissipating the unburned gas into the atmosphere. Additional environmental benefits, improved air quality, and carbon reduction occur when RNG displaces fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

Studies have indicated that greater development of RNG has the potential to satisfy up to 10 percent of the demand for geologic natural gas. As we’ve seen with the wind and solar industries, many corporations, utility companies, and individual customers want to incorporate renewables into their energy mixes.

What has held RNG back?

Money.

It costs more to refine renewable gas so that it can be transported via existing infrastructure. The government recognizes this and has assigned renewable identification numbers (RINs) to each unit of upgraded biogas. Producers and utilities can buy, sell, and trade RINs to meet renewable energy goals or quotas, thus creating a market for RINs. Some companies not only produce RNG, they also trade in RINs as well.

Utility companies have traditionally used RNG to access the incentives. More recently, however, states such as California and Oregon have passed laws mandating that gas utilities include a percentage of RNG in their pipelines. 

Earlier this year, the industry celebrated a major corporate endorsement when UPS announced it would purchase 170 million-gallon equivalents of RNG for its ground fleet. Meanwhile, Smithfield Foods, the nation’s leading pork producer, is installing covered digesters to capture biogas from manure lagoons, and Duke Energy will purchase some of the RNG to fire electrical generators in North Carolina.

Even before these positive developments, the industry had seen the pace of growth increase. During the 15 years prior to 2010, a total of 22 commercial RNG projects were developed, according to the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas. During the next five years, 31 projects were developed and in 2017 alone, ground was broken on 22 additional projects.

Olsson has the in-house ability to meet RNG project specifications, from master engineering, to environmental planning and permitting, to geotechnical services and surveying.

The stage is set for RNG to contribute more significantly to the nation’s renewable energy goals. But it will require consumer commitment, governmental incentives, and bold project development backed by efficient engineering to move the market closer to a tipping point.

For more information, reach Ken at 402.970.2340 or kkilzer@olsson.com

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