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Renewable Natural Gas Makes Inroads in California, Oregon, and Missouri

What is expected to be the nation's largest dairy biogas operation opened in the Central Valley. To the north, Gov. Kate Brown signed the nation's first bill to establish goals to add renewable gas to pipelines, and pigs in Missouri also made news.
August 10, 2019, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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As the nation's electricity generation gets cleaner due to the shuttering of coal power plants, replaced by cleaner-burning natural gas and zero-emission, renewable sources like solar and wind, so too are some natural gas utilities by turning to biogas from dairies, feedlots, landfills, and wastewater treatment facilities, which is then processed into "pipeline-ready" renewable natural gas (RNG) to replace or supplement 'fossil' gas. Three recent events on the West Coast and heartland show tangible progress for greening this fossil fuel.

Methane (CH4) is second only to carbon as a greenhouse gas (GHG) in volume, accounting for 10% of COequivalent in the U.S. in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period."

A quick look at the 19 posts in Planetizen tagged "methane emissions" reveals news mostly about oil and gas drilling and distribution infrastructure, yet in California, the nation's seventh-largest oil-producing state and 15th largest natural gas-producing state (according to the Energy Information Administration's 2017 "rankings" data), oil and gas extraction accounted for only 16% of the state's anthropogenic methane emissions in 2016. So where are the remaining 84% of emissions originating, and why aren't they getting more media attention?

Sources of Methane Emissions in California

Dairy digesters

Natural gas utilities have shown interest in tapping these "biogas" sources, particularly from dairies and landfill, the state's second and third largest methane emissions after enteric (digestive) emissions from cattle. "About 65 percent of cow manure is composed of methane," according to KQED. "On a typical farm, cow manure is spread on fields where the methane gas seeps out of the manure and into the atmosphere."

On July 29, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) joined Calgren Renewable Fuels and state and local officials in Pixley, a small town in the nation's largest milk-producing county, Tulare, in California's Central Valley, to celebrate the completion of Calgren's dairy renewable natural gas facility. "The project, the first of its kind in California, is expected to be the largest dairy biogas operation in the U.S. later this year," according to the announcement.

At the new facility, Calgren collects cow manure – a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions - from four local dairy farms and processes it in an anaerobic digestor [sic] that accelerates the natural decomposition process. Methane emissions (biogas) from that process are captured and converted to make renewable vehicle fuels [and also injected into the SoCalGas pipeline system].

Calgren plans to partner with eight additional dairy farms by the end of 2019, which will make the facility the largest dairy biogas project in the nation [capturing methane produced from the manure of more than 75,000 cows.]

“As part of our vision to be the cleanest natural gas company in North America, we have committed to replacing 20 percent of the natural gas we deliver today with renewable natural gas, primarily from organic sources, by 2030,” says Jeff Walker, vice president of customer solutions at SoCalGas.

California legislation

There's another driving force in California to tap methane emissions from agriculture – Senate Bill 1383, aka the Super Pollutant Reduction Act of 2016 by then-Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), that aims to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants to achieve a reduction in methane by 40%, hydrofluorocarbon gases by 40%, and anthropogenic black carbon by 50% below 2013 levels by 2030.

The bill was fiercely opposed by the dairy business because of the added costs of reducing emissions, according to the Associated Press, which explains the significance of state grants. SoCalGas presented Calgren with a $5 million incentive check authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to support the development of renewable energy projects at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Pixley. 

Environmentalists' opposition

SB 457  - Biomethane Incentive Program Extension, by Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), is opposed by several environmental groups. "This program is a severe health threat to low-income communities, doesn’t truly address our state’s climate crisis and benefits large dairies," states the California Environmental Justice Alliance. Several other groups, including Sierra Club California, are also opposed to the bill. The linkage of digesters with intensive animal farming, aka factory farming or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), factors in strongly with their opposition. 

Oregon law

On July 15, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed Senate Bill 98, "creating a path for renewable natural gas (RNG) to become an increasing part of the state’s energy supply," reports Betsy Lillian, the editor of NGT News (source article). "The bill outlines [voluntary] goals for adding as much as 30% RNG into the state’s pipeline system."

“Oregon has long been a place for innovation in environmental protections, and this legislation continues that tradition,” says Brown. “Allowing our natural gas utilities to acquire a renewable product for their customers brings us one step closer to a clean energy future.”

 "This a groundbreaking piece of legislation,” says Nina Kapoor, director of state government affairs for the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas. “Several states have advanced policies in recent years to support renewable natural gas; however, the Oregon law goes further than any other by setting clear goals for renewable natural gas procurement.”

The bill was sponsored by NW Natural, a natural gas service company serving Oregon and Washington. According to its press release, "Renewable natural gas is a zero carbon resource produced from local, organic materials like food, agricultural and forestry waste, wastewater, or landfills."

“This is the first piece of legislation of its kind in the nation and we couldn’t be more pleased to lead the way,” said David H. Anderson, president and CEO of NW Natural.

I'm proud to have worked with NW Natural and others to shepherd through this innovative policy that carves a renewable energy path for other states to follow,” said State Senator Michael Dembrow (D-District 23), chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Missouri hog farm

A different type of ‘manure-to-energy’ project was completed on Aug. 5 in Missouri with the construction of a low-pressure natural gas transmission line connecting a Smithfield hog farm located in Northern Missouri with the city of Milan’s [pronounced MY-lun] natural gas pipeline," according to a press release from the Smithfield, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods.

Smithfield installed infrastructure to capture methane emissions from its Northern Missouri hog farms and convert them into pipeline-quality natural gas through its Monarch Bioenergy joint venture with Roeslein Alternative Energy.

Supply of Renewable Natural Gas

One of the major criticisms of RNG is a lack of supply. Many news articles in California reference a 2016 study by Amy Myers Jaffe of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) Program, Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis, prepared for the California Air Resources Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency: "The Feasibility of Renewable Natural Gas as a Large-Scale, Low Carbon Substitute."

"There are extensive RNG resources that could be tapped in California," notes the summary section [pdf]. "We estimate that California’s renewable natural gas resource base contains up to 90.6 billion cubic feet of gas per year of renewable natural gas supply that can be assessed as technically producible." However, by increasing tipping fees for municipal solid waste, supply would grow due to increased private investment.

The aforementioned SoCalGas press release about the Pixley facility stated that "scientists at the University of California, Davis estimate that the state's existing organic waste could produce enough RNG to meet the needs of 2.3 million homes."

Incentives for use as transportation fuels 

While SoCalGas and NW Natural are looking to add renewable natural gas to their pipelines to sell to their customers, it's transportation that may be driving their development, according to an April 2018 working paper by the World Resources Institute, "The Production and Use of Waste-Derived Renewable Natural Gas as a Climate Strategy in the United States."

This working paper [pdf] focuses on RNG use as a vehicle fuel because this is where most RNG is used today, driven in large part by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and low-carbon fuel standards in California and Oregon. [page 2]

And from the executive summary:

The most promising RNG projects include food and yard waste diverted from landfills and livestock manure projects on farms that aren’t already capturing methane. Analyses have shown that using RNG from these projects in heavy-duty vehicles can result in net GHG reductions on a life-cycle basis.

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Published on Friday, August 2, 2019 in NGT News
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