Updated: Mar 18, 2021
As written by: Emily Folk
In the search for alternatives to fossil fuel energy, renewable natural gas is the latest technology to take the spotlight. Renewable natural gas, also known as biogas, is collected from waste. Like natural gas, the main component of this power source is methane. Unlike natural gas, renewable natural gas does not require extraction from coal beds or petroleum reservoirs, which is the main source of commercial natural gas.
Renewable natural gas (RNG) is a sustainable alternative to natural gas. It can be processed in the same way, meaning that utility companies can use it in the same pipelines and other infrastructure without issue. It is also a low-carbon energy solution that does not require fossil fuels to generate power.
Methane is one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and most of it comes from human activity and agriculture. If we could harness methane-producing waste to create an electricity source, we could reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere and also utilize a new renewable power source.
Renewable natural gas has a future in energy and may potentially help relieve the world's current waste problem. Diverting waste from landfills and agricultural operations could reduce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, while also creating new "green" jobs and moving the energy industry away from fossil fuel production.
The main sources for RNG include agricultural operations, food waste, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Waste in the United States is a huge problem. Food waste is estimated at nearly 40% of the total food supply. Concentrated animal feedlots (CAFOs) produce enormous amounts of manure waste, polluting waterways and increasing toxins in the soil.
Renewable natural gas may help alleviate waste problems from various industries. The United States produces more trash per person than any other country in the world, and a good portion of this is organic material that could be used for energy or recycled.
The energy industry is actively searching for innovative ways to address increasing energy demands. As states seek new climate initiatives, renewable natural gas may be an efficient way of addressing waste issues and power demands. In California, incentives for renewable natural gas are already on the market. A study by UC Davis reported that over 20% of residential natural gas could be sourced from RNG derived from statewide organic waste. Increasing market demand in other states will be the key to utilizing RNG as a primary energy source.
Renewable natural gas has incredible potential as a renewable energy source. As a bonus, it all helps alleviate waste issues that industries such as agriculture currently face. Depending on the size and scope of the operation, generating RNG on-site could also create alternative income streams for agricultural businesses. That includes struggling industries like dairy, which need diversified income to withstand market volatility.
Since RNG can be easily instituted into current natural gas infrastructure, it could be a cost-effective way to handle waste while also getting energy onto the grid. However, market incentivization will play an important role in utilizing this new technology. The energy industry looks for the easiest, cheapest solution. Unless there is a carbon tax that makes it more economically viable to transition to renewable natural gas, many states will not take advantage of this opportunity.
That being said, the potential for RNG in the energy industry is enormous. The new revenue streams created by RNG could benefit farmers, municipalities and industry leaders who can use harvested methane to generate power and income.
Future Solutions for the Energy Industry
The United States is facing a severe waste problem and heavily relies on fossil fuels for energy. In the next few years, renewable natural gas may emerge as a solution to both of these issues.
Source: Emily Folk