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California Energy Markets / Bottom Lines

[October 5, 2018 / No. 1508]

Interest Is Flaring in Renewable Natural Gas as a Climate Tool

The time is now to communicate with the California Public Utilities Commission on bolstering usage of renewable natural gas, a senior CPUC official told an Oct. 2 gathering of proponents of the burgeoning energy resource.

"Be prepared to participate over the long term to make your needs heard," CPUC Senior Analyst Jamie Ormond said as she encouraged RNG advocates to visit the commission and promote the energy source, which is produced from methane generated by landfills, wastewater-treatment plants, food-processing plants, dairies and other facilities. Gas specifications, interconnection challenges, incentives and other RNG issues discussed at the event are all under the purview of the CPUC, she said.

Ormond said she was not officially speaking for the commission at her appearance-by-remote at the "Power of Waste: Renewable Natural Gas for California" event held at Southern California Gas Co.'s Energy Resource Center in Downey, California, in southeast Los Angeles County. The session was also sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric and Energy Vision, described as a national nonprofit organization.

Renewable natural gas derived from methane is a technology that has been around for several decades but has vast untapped potential, RNG proponents say.

It has uses including power generation, transportation, residential and commercial heating and cooking, and has the dual benefit of reducing usage of traditional natural gas and keeping methane out of the atmosphere. Depending on its source, it can be low-carbon or carbon-free, according to SoCal Gas parent Sempra.

Levelized costs for pipeline injections of biogas can typically be expected to be about $25/MMBtu, and $7/MMBtu at a larger scale (for 20 years, 6 percent annual interest), according to the California Energy Commission's 2017 Integrated Energy Policy Report. This compares with roughly $3/MMBtu for traditional natural gas. These figures do not include about $4/MMBtu for costs related to all types of flaring for both resources, the IEPR says, citing data from the UC Davis Biomass Collaborative.

Injecting biomethane into a natural gas pipeline requires installing biogas conditioning and upgrading equipment, utility interconnection, and possibly biogas gathering lines, the IEPR says.

The CPUC has been focused on renewable electricity generation for the past 20 years, so the world of RNG is "fairly new," Ormond said. "The more I know, the more the process knows, basically," she said, adding that "there is a lot of work to do."

2015 California Methane Emissions Inventory
Renewable natural gas is seen as a tool to reach California’s climate goals, but widespread usage has its opponents. Source: California Energy Commission

The CPUC, along with the California Air Resources Board and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is in the process of selecting among applications for dairy biomethane pilot projects, which will process manure using anaerobic digestion to produce useable methane gas. The selection committee is expected to make its choices by the end of the year, Ormond said.

The pilot projects and other RNG pushes were mandated in SB 1383, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, which established statewide methane emissions-reduction targets for short-lived climate pollutants. It codified CARB's Short-Lived Pollutant Reduction Strategy and established a 2020 target date for a 50-percent reduction in statewide disposal of organic waste from the 2014 level, and a 75-percent reduction by 2025.

The law granted the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle—a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency—the regulatory authority to achieve the organic-waste disposal reduction targets. It also set a goal of recovering 20 percent of current disposable food for human consumption by 2025.

Food waste accounts for up to 18 percent of total landfill disposal, according to CalRecycle, and technologies include anaerobic digesters that produce biogas for use in generating electricity or producing renewable transportation fuels. State enforcement and penalties related to the organic-waste reduction and edible-food recovery targets take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

RNG is an upgraded biogas, which is a gaseous form of methane obtained from biomass, and can be transported via existing gas pipelines, or converted to liquefied natural gas for use as a transportation fuel. At the forum, RNG advocates discussed the issues facing the industry, including a lack of public awareness.

But RNG has its opponents, with the Sierra Club in August disputing the findings of a report done by SoCal Gas and Navigant Consulting that found usage of biomethane could reduce GHG emissions from buildings at an equal level to building electrification ("Analysis on the Role of Gas for a Low-Carbon California Future" [18-IEPR-09]).

Sierra Club said the report is slanted toward gas, underestimates the potential GHG emissions from electrification, and does not realistically assess the amount of biomethane that is available.

At the conference, Energy Vision President Matt Tomich said that public education is critical to grow the resource.

"There is still a lack of understanding outside this room," Tomich said. "Very few people outside of this room have even heard of biogas." –Jason Fordney

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