By Mike Butler
When many people think of renewable energy, they think of modern wind, solar and hydropower resources. When they think of natural gas, they think of it as a traditional, finite source of energy – something that’s used and then gone.
But there’s another form of renewable energy that many have overlooked as an option to help meet some states’ emission reduction goals in regulatory actions like New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan and the Garden State’s larger climate conversation. It’s called Renewable Natural Gas or RNG inside the energy world.
RNG combines the strength and benefits of two forms of energy – renewable energy and natural gas – and it turns out it’s been around for as long as humans have been farming. Some might even refer to it as biogas, a byproduct of organic materials mixing with oxygen. RNG in this case comes from multiple sources of organic leftovers and waste.
Methane is the key molecule that makes up natural gas and found in the prolific energy basins across the country that we use to produce, transport and sell energy. Natural gas has many benefits, too. It’s clean, affordable and plentiful here in the U.S. Gas is able to be safely transported in pipelines and is used every day in our homes, businesses, transportation systems and power grid.
But traditional exploration for natural gas isn’t the only way to capture and harness methane – a chemical compound that occurs abundantly in nature does as well.
Besides being found underwater, in wetlands, and from naturally occurring seeps, methane is also released in landfills, water treatment plants, and in agriculture. The same methane that comes from oil and gas production also comes from four-legged creatures that dot the plains and fields of America’s farms and ranches – cows. There are an estimated 95 million cows in America and the small amounts of methane they release can really add up, and if uncaptured, that methane escapes into the atmosphere anyway where it has a significant impact on emissions.
If we effectively collect that waste, and process it, it can become a usable fuel that fits our existing infrastructure for power and home heating needs. And because this resource can be produced over and over, it makes for a great renewable source of energy from our livestock that also reduces harmful air emissions.
While the renewable gas utility market in Canada appears to have a more mature market, the U.S. is catching up quickly with California, New York, Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii all making strides to help utilities incorporate RNG into their energy mix.
For example, promising projects from agribusiness companies like Smithfield Foods will result in enough renewable natural gas to power more than 2,700 homes and business and brings the company closer to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25 percent by 2025.
The traditional natural gas industry is also committed to capturing more methane – after all, that’s the primary fuel source they are trying to sell, and every molecule going into the atmosphere is a dollar lost. Since 2000, the industry has invested more than $108 billion in technologies to help capture these “fugitive emissions” which can escape during production and operations.
That money is in addition to the $151 billion the federal government has invested in research and development programs primarily run though the Department of Energy and Argonne National Labs. On top of that, satellites, airplanes and helicopter sensor technology are all helping to detect and reduce methane from entering our atmosphere.
While RNG only makes a small percentage of our energy make-up today, the opportunities are tremendous and should be a part of the clean energy future New Jersey is pursuing. The more solutions we have to meet both our energy needs and environmental goals the better. Plus, consider the significant benefits that will be achieved by removing waste from our agriculture operations and the benefits for rural America. Over time our best minds will continue to advance and refine technology to help costs come down for RNG – just look at the cost of solar panels 10 years ago to today.
So while it may be early, the idea of capturing renewable natural gas definitely has legs for New Jersey’s energy future energy solutions.