Most Canadians support some form of action to tackle climate change and large investments and carbon levies to accomplish our climate-fighting goals. But when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, our best laid climate plans often fall short.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met in Canada earlier this week to explore renewable energy production and trade to reduce Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels. Germany is especially reliant on importing energy from Russia, which invaded Ukraine six months ago, instigating a war that has shocked the world in its brutality. The bottom line is the need for green energy innovation and production on a global scale has never been more urgent.
Canada needs to cut our 2005 carbon emission levels by 40 per cent in eight years in order to meet our 2030 Emission Reduction Plan targets, and we don’t have a great track record of achieving the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission goals we set in the past.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as buying an electric vehicle or installing solar panels. Meeting our 2030 target will require innovation and purpose, especially from energy suppliers who can deliver emission reduction on a large scale.
We owe it to our children, who will pay the price for our failure in combating climate change, to think outside the box of conventional renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydro.
Every energy source has its drawbacks. Those associated with fossil fuels are obvious. Nuclear has negligible emissions, but is expensive and produces waste that is very challenging to manage. Wind and solar require considerable switching costs and are slow to scale up to the point that large energy consumers can rely on them.
There are several energy innovators in Canada making huge strides in adopting low- or no-carbon energy solutions by blending energy sources with the goal of helping large and small energy users achieve their 2030 goals. One solution that has generated excellent results is renewable natural gas (RNG).
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RNG is extracted from the stuff we throw away into landfills. Food waste and other organic material can be processed into an energy source that performs like natural gas, but without releasing anywhere near the same level of carbon dioxide. StormFisher Hydrogen’s biogas production facility in London, Ont., is the largest in Canada, diverting waste from the surrounding area’s landfills and converting it into enough RNG to produce 2.85 MW of electricity to supply heavy power users every year.
There are other options, of course, like solar panels or energy-saving mechanical devices to shave off power consumption here and there. But with RNG, there is no need for any refits or building upgrades to process thermal needs, such as steam and heating, making it ideal for large energy users.
Companies that install heating, ventilation, air conditioning, mechanical, plumbing and electrical equipment in large buildings are taking GHG reduction seriously because their clients are demanding carbon-neutral engineering solutions. RNG is quickly becoming the platform to achieve this.
Construction is the third-largest carbon-emitting industry after oil and gas and transportation. Renewable natural gas can have a huge impact on cutting GHG emissions in this sector, according to building engineers. Since existing buildings and equipment are already capable of processing fossil-based natural gas, transitioning to RNG only requires flipping a switch. Owners and operators do not have to invest in millions of dollars in new equipment or retrofits.
Unlike solar panels and mechanical retrofits, there are no switching costs for new equipment.
The main challenge potential customers face is RNG is priced at a premium and is scarce. This is largely due to the lack of processing capacity and low awareness of biogas initiatives that will encourage more supply and bolster demand.
Federal climate change policymakers have a golden opportunity to make giant strides toward hitting our 2030 GHG reduction targets by encouraging biogas as part of the solution. To get there, Ottawa needs to clearly implement policies related to the decarbonization of the natural gas sector, such as a 15 per cent renewable gas blending mandate. Any delay risks failing to meet our 2030 emission reduction targets.
One way to raise awareness of RNG options for heavy power users is to clearly rate its very good emission performance based on its carbon intensity. For example, natural gas has a carbon intensity rating of approximately plus 60 gCO2e MJ, indicating a high level of GHG emission, while RNG has a carbon intensity that can be as low as minus 100 gCO2e MJ, according to data analyzed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. (Carbon intensity is the measure of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with producing and consuming a transportation fuel. It is measured in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule of energy.)
Due to the high price and shortage of RNG, customers should have a chance to merge the two sources and have their carbon emissions measured by a blended rating. For example, splitting your gas supply in half between natural gas and RNG would give customers a combined carbon-intensity rating of minus 20 gCO2e/MJ, enough to qualify as carbon-neutral for a carbon tax exemption. These are the kind of measures that will encourage the private sector to invest in biogas processing as a clean energy opportunity while diverting more waste from landfills and toward new environmentally safe uses.
Unfortunately, there are only eight years left to unlock the potential of renewable gases before we will be judged on whether we met our emission reduction targets. We are at the point where we just can’t afford to miss them anymore.
What we need now is a true partnership with federal and provincial governments to generate more biogas supply and innovation, and incentives for more large-scale energy users to adopt it.
Brandon Moffatt is co-founder at StormFisher Hydrogen with experience developing regulatory and industry policy in renewable energy. He has led the development, design and construction of several complex renewable gas production facilities across North America and has a detailed understanding of the commercial and operational aspects of power-to-hydrogen and power-to-gas projects. Brandon is also a board member of the Ontario Environment Industry Association, has an MBA from the Odette School of Business and holds a B.A.Sc. in environmental engineering from the University of Waterloo.
Gotta say I'm quite
Gotta say I'm quite suspicious of this. Just at an intuitive level, it sounds kind of like one of those things the natural gas industry would say so they can keep their natural gas infrastructure being built in new developments, have pipes that mix mostly natural gas with a smidgen of this other stuff so they can claim to be all green, delay moves to do the stuff that is actually important and so on.
I can't say I know any of this to be the case, though. Maybe it's a great idea. But I seem to recall hearing that the potential supply is pretty limited--not enough to actually make it worth continuing to use most of the natural gas infrastructure. So I'm not going to say nobody should ever use this stuff . . . but this piece kind of reminds me of the sudden blitz for hydrogen that turned out to be all about "blue" hydrogen made from natural gas with maybe even more emissions.
The facts in this article are
The facts in this article are more or less true in terms of the carbon footprint. What it fails to address, becuase the author is trying to sell us on his business case, is the scale-up that would be needed for RNG to make any appreciable impact on overall gas usage. The problem is the supply of 'waste' - there is not nearly enough of it. The RNG industry would need to grow crops to meet even half of the demand. In this sense it is like alcohol for fuel or biodiesel that uses agricultural land to produce crops as input. There is not enough agricultural land to support this and feed the world without more conversion of "wilderness" to agriculture.
So yes, RNG is a stalking horse for the natural gas industry, like 'hydrogen'. But be of good cheer, it is really easy to instal an electric heat pump and just turn off the gas tap, leaving the pipes for some future civilization to salvage.
This opinion piece isn't
This opinion piece isn't telling the whole story on RNG. I would encourage everyone to read tis article from the Sightline Institute. RNG rests on faulty assumptions. It's not the easy fix this article is trying to imply. https://www.sightline.org/2021/03/09/the-four-fatal-flaws-of-renewable-n...
The City of Calgary
The City of Calgary Wastewater Treatment plants have been getting about half their power from methane released from the wastewater during treatment, for over 30 years now. Two pretty straightforward moves would be
1) extend that system to every large wastewater treatment plant;
2) equip them all with some amount of methane storage, and pay them a premium to store it until the grid is needing extra electricity (night and slow wind speeds), then run the WHOLE plant on it until the supply runs out.
The ONLY reason to get power from anything but wind and solar, at this economic point, is to compensate for the irregularity of those two cheap sources. Every other generation technology, from here on, is about supply-shaping.
There's yer biogas (which might make a nice partner with those basically horrifying 5000-pig barns and their monstrous effluents, make them useful) and of course, your just burning agricultural waste like it was coal. "Agricultural waste" was the only organic source of burnables that made sense, when they gamed out things like deliberately growing trees to pyrolize them and bury the carbon.
Between them, they still just add up to a minor addition to the energy mix; converting our hydro plants to be part storage and not 7x24 hydro will be a bigger project, and more needed.