Energy, global-warming solution that’s ‘right in front of us’

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Energy.]

By David Cox & Tom Russo
Real Clear Energy

Regardless of which Administration is in charge next year, or what party controls the Congress, these leaders will be tasked with addressing our energy challenges and rebuilding our economy. Moving the needle on both of these challenges, will require a balance of bold action, innovative technologies, and pragmatic solutions.

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When it comes to energy solutions to invigorate our economy and slow the pace of climate change, some have asserted that electrification alone, is the most viable solution. But this is a false proposition. It would be a mistake to romanticize a “one-size fits all” approach that proposes that electrification is the only viable route to a successful energy transition. If we are serious about lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and getting our economy back on track, renewable natural gas (RNG) must be a part of the solution.

RNG should be common ground between environmentalists and businesses alike. It takes food waste, animal manure, wastewater sludge and garbage – all of which emit harmful methane gases into the atmosphere when they decompose in an unmanaged setting – and turns those emissions into clean energy that fuel our vehicles and power and heat American homes and businesses.

This is especially important as solid waste is expected to grow nearly 70% by 2050. While electrification is an important tool in fighting climate change, it does not negate the waste that often pollutes our air and waterways.

Unmanaged biogas from solid waste is responsible for 28% of U.S. fugitive methane emissions – almost as much as the entire oil and gas industry.

Additionally, RNG provides another revenue stream for U.S. farmers and local governments, many of whom have taken a hit during the recent economic downturn due to COVID-19 pandemic. Every community in America produces waste. With RNG they can redeem the energy value of waste that has no other viable use. What has historically been a burden, has now  become a long-term financial asset.

Moreover, RNG is a true drop-in fuel. Companies that use natural gas for heating, manufacturing, feedstock, or to fuel their vehicles (CNG or LNG) can seamlessly replace some or all of their consumption with RNG to reduce their carbon footprint and achieve the goals of their environmental, sustainability and governance programs that investors are increasingly focusing on.

RNG facilities support clean energy jobs and have seen an unprecedented 30% annual growth-rate in recent years with 130 RNG facilities operating today, and another 110 projects in various stages of development across North America. In California alone, the world’s six largest economy, RNG has the potential to create up to 130,000 new jobs and $14.3 billion in positive economic impact – imagine what additional growth in the industry could bring to other U.S. local economies who fully embrace RNG.

RNG is also not a pie in the sky proposition – the technology and energy are already here. RNG is currently being deployed to heat our homes and businesses, to generate renewable electricity, and to fuel the trucks and buses that make our economy run. In 2019, ninety-seven percent (97%) of all cellulosic advanced biofuel measured by EPA under the renewable fuel standard (RFS) was RNG.

RNG is a viable and competitive fuel. It is storable, and because of its compatibility with our current natural gas infrastructure, it does not require expensive upgrades to our cooktops, furnaces, or appliances.

Unfortunately, even with all of the recent growth, we are currently only tapping into a small percentage of the RNG currently available in the United States. RNG has been a success story of EPA’s RFS, but uncertainty and instability in the program have limited its positive impact.  Moreover, injecting RNG into the nation’s interstate natural gas pipeline system can be expensive and challenging as balkanized interconnection standards vary with each pipeline company throughout the country – and many do not have a standard process for accepting RNG.

The next administration and Congress should support an RFS that demonstrates predictable and consistent growth for advanced biofuels beyond 2022 and strengthen EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach and AgStar programs and DOE’s Clean Cities program. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should promulgate regulations that promote reasonable RNG gas system interconnections and reduce barriers to RNG project development.

RNG is not the solution to all of our climate woes, but it is a valuable piece of the puzzle that is being undervalued and underutilized.  While bold climate goals are necessary, we must also strongly commit to a diverse portfolio of viable renewable energy options that will provide a pathway to a cleaner, more reliable, low carbon future. Let us not allow partisanship, perfection, and a “one-size-fits all” approach get in the way of a solution that is right in front of us.

David Cox is Co-Founder of The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, and Thomas N. Russo is President, Russo on Energy LLC and a former FERC regulator.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Energy.]