A Q&A with ACT’s renewable natural gas expert

August 10, 2022

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1: The Biden administration wants to reduce emissions in the US 50% by 2030. Hitting these goals would require transitioning from natural gas plants to wind turbines, coal to solar, and gas vehicles to electric vehicles, with heating transitioning from natural gas to electric heat pumps and cooking from gas to electric. Relative to 2021 use, all of this would require 40-60% more electricity generation. Why is renewable gas still the better option?

I am not entirely sure that means we need 40-60% more electricity generation. And while RNG is not necessarily better, it is a complementary option that helps the transition toward a lower-carbon economy. RNG helps capture methane and convert it to a useful product. This is preferable compared to allowing methane vent into the atmosphere, which, as we all know, is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

2: Are these emissions reductions workable?

Even if it is technically feasible, these goals, while admirable, are aspirational largely because 2030 is not that far off.

3: With the ideal scenario being unworkable, at least right now, what is the next best scenario?

The next best scenario is to focus on the highest emitters which typically are older coal plants and older inefficient natural gas turbines.  Those types of facilities can be replaced by a combination of wind, solar and modern efficient natural gas combined cycle power plants.

4: How do you sell the public on this?

RNG represents a circular economy. It takes waste in various forms and converts it to pipeline quality natural gas. Natural gas, which is a fossil energy source, is obtained through well drilling and introduces new carbon into the carbon cycle. Additionally, RNG is a solution that is available now through existing infrastructure.Without the intentional collection of methane from landfills, municipal wastewater, and dairy or swine farms, the methane from those facilities will likely be vented into the atmosphere, which, as well all know, is not an environmentally sound practice.

5: What would be the long-term plan then?

We need to focus on getting coal facilities off the grid. After that, perhaps even in conjunction with that, we need to get diesel off the road, likely through a transition to compressed natural gas or CNG. Here we are looking at a 10-year time horizon and this transition will likely start with long-haul vehicles. Hydrogen could also work – it certainly has a toehold in California – though without the necessary infrastructure, that transition is essentially on hold. In short, we need to make improvements now since the alternative would be another 30 years of reliance on fossil fuels.

6: On this, what would make you more optimistic about the ability of the US and other industrialized countries to make the transition to renewable gases happen?

I would feel more optimistic if politicians could legislate based on science and facts instead of the interests of their political donors. Coal presents a useful case study here. Coal mining jobs are declining due to mechanization, coal plants are incredibly dirty. Communities nearby struggle with health and environmental problems due to contamination from hard metals, spent ash, and greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone knows this, however without consensus about what can and should happen next, this situation will remain unchanged.

7: What would successful advocacy for renewable gas involve?

RNG is not controversial. Most people are not aware of it and the volumes are quite small compared to typical natural gas usage. Again, the transition to RNG is a surprisingly easy sell if we focus on the circular economy. Instead of buy-use-trash, we talk about it as buy-use-harvest. Through anaerobic facilities, we can harvest methane from decomposing waste and turn it into a fuel source. 

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