Can a Negative Emission Energy Source Really Take Over?
The marriage between tech and sustainability’s most public display is in electric vehicles. From Tesla to Polestar to the electric BMW, electric vehicles (EVs) are heralded as these high-tech cars that not only allow drivers to save at the pump, but are also laden with new tech features such as self-driving, parking assist, touch screens, and even a sentry mode.
Consumers love the flashiness of these vehicles and the sustainability associated with them. A huge marketing point to environmentally conscious buyers is that not only can they save money on gas, but EVs have zero emissions while driving. Considering that over a quarter of emissions in this country are caused by transportation, moving to zero-emission vehicles can dramatically reduce our nation's emissions. There are concerns about procurement, but overall these vehicles are much greener than cars that rely on traditional fossil fuels.
As the price point for these vehicles starts to taper and allow for more accessibility to these vehicles, our car-centric society can see a shift in the right direction with the adoption of EVs. That's really good news for those that are worried about the state of things like air quality, Carbon Dioxide emissions, and road safety. But what if we took things a step further and found a fuel for transportation that not only has zero emissions, but actually reduces the number of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere?
This sounds like a faraway scenario that would be ideal in a sustainable utopia- a form of transportation that also alleviates one of our biggest problems on earth. But thanks to said marriage between sustainability and tech, a fuel that does this has been found.
It’s called Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). This is not to be confused with its cousin natural gas, which is derived from fracking. Natural gas has a negative environmental impact, but still one that is less than that of other fossil fuels.
Compared to that, Renewable Natural Gas is something much more radical- natural gas derived from the wastes of organic compounds. It usually comes at a larger scale from dairy compounds, food waste, and other wastes that humans interact with.
So how the heck do we get negative greenhouse gas emissions?
A greenhouse gas negative source of fuel sounds too good to be true. RNG can be captured by the methane produced by the breakdown of these organic wastes, that would otherwise leak into the environment. These dairy farms and landfills are just gold mines for sources of methane.
RNG is greenhouse negative because it takes out more greenhouse gasses than it emits. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere, so it’s also understandable that you’d question why an environmentalist is so excited about the removal of methane. While CO2 is a problem because of the volume at which humans are emitting it, methane is almost 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide. Getting that out of our atmosphere and reducing the biggest problem associated with dairy farms can kill two incredibly important birds with one highly convenient stone.
So when’s my RNG car coming along?
Probably not anytime soon. Common passenger vehicles are already making great strides in sustainability as EVs become more common. RNG is better used to target fleets, as their sustainability has stalled in the past few years. States like California incentivize switching to alternative fuels like these with Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits, tradeable credits that can be awarded, bought, and sold with entities receiving more LCFS credits as they move to alternate fuels.
Fleets can get these credits as they use RNG to decarbonize, and it provides a good solution to the waste problems associated with dairy farms and landfills.
What’s the catch?
What isn’t the catch. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. RNG is great for fleets, but that’s pretty much all it’s good for. There just isn’t enough to scale it to cover all the demand for natural gas. Waste in California would only meet 3% of the state’s natural gas demand. Not a good look for scaling RNG if the 5th largest economy can’t even come close to replacing its demand for natural gas with it. The total potential for biomethane in the entire country can barely cover California’s diesel fuel use (which is less than a quarter of its natural gas use).
RNG is best suited for fleets and fleets alone, as it allows us to use the waste created by dairy farms and landfills, but it can’t be scaled because of the very low supply.
The solution to our energy systems as a whole will still always be electrification. RNG is great in that small scale, but the lack of supply means that clean, renewable electricity still needs to be prioritized.
Natural gas is often seen as a “transition” fuel, and RNG is a way that gas companies have been able to add the mask of sustainability in blue states like California. Natural gas companies have found themselves in a tricky situation in that blue states have been passing restrictions on the fuel in an effort to pave the way for a more sustainable energy portfolio. They don’t have this problem in red states because the politics (lobbying) have worked in their favor (campaign finance).
But seeing their potential customer base continue to go down as more and more blue states restrict natural gas is not something they want to take lightly. Some have even banded together and spent seven figures on PR campaigns in the Pacific Northwest to help boost the fuel’s perception and move us away from electrification.
Decarbonization can only be done through electrification, especially when states like California need to meet their climate goals by 2030 and 2045. My fixation on California in this article is no mistake. Sure, it’s my home state and where a lot of sustainability innovation resides, but more importantly, it’s one of the largest economies in the world and has the second highest demand for natural gas in the country.
Utility companies want to tap into this climate-conscious market while still having their foothold in natural gas, so RNG was touted as the solution to this problem without addressing the scale necessary for it to truly be a solution.
Natural gas companies losing this battle for electrification in California can be seen as a major economic pivot towards decarbonization via electrification — as demand for unclean “transition” fuels decreases, companies will have no choice but to pivot to more sustainable ventures. Lobbying only works if you have the money to do it.
What does this mean for me then?
RNG is a lesson to all of us that are climate-conscious. It’s proof that we are able to find solutions to problems we have such as what to do with our methane waste, but it’s also proof that these solutions will be manipulated for profit as well. If this was a large-scale solution, I’d be all for it. It’s surely advertised as one. But in the end, other than its viable use in the fleet sector, it’s just another distraction from us meeting our end goal: electrification.
Natural gas definitely has its benefits and offers a scale that’s hard to beat. But the intersection of sustainability and technology is more than just the flash that I had mentioned earlier. The economics behind electrification work out as well. It’s just becoming a matter of fighting ancient policy (lobbying), and being free of distracting alternatives.