Is Big Gas finally learning to love biogas?

Unlike the EU, only a tiny fragment of Canada’s methane from rotting food, manure and farm waste becomes marketable as renewable natural gas

renewable natural gas

Earlier this fall, the City of Vancouver, the B.C. government and energy giant Fortis unveiled what they touted as a major development in the long, slow and often frustrating story wherein the energy riches trapped in municipal or agricultural waste are unlocked and recycled in environmentally sustainable ways.

Armed with a $4.28-million grant through the CleanBC Industry Fund and matching funds from the city, the project will significantly expand the biogas collection process at the city’s landfill site by installing wells “to capture methane and carbon dioxide that would otherwise be vented to the atmosphere,” according to an explainer released by the province.

The methane is refined and then sold to Fortis, which injects the renewable natural gas (RNG) into its pipelines. (Fortis, with $6.6 billion in 2019 revenues, distributes natural gas across North America.) CleanBC estimates the project will remove about 485,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the next decade.

For years, biogas didn’t get this kind of love from Big Gas. Lumped in with those once wooly technologies like wind and solar, biogas presented unique complications: working out arrangements with municipal waste management agencies, finding sources of decaying stuff that could be tapped economically, and purifying the captured methane so it could be reused.

Yet lately, it seems, Big Gas – facing existential threats with growing pressure to electrify everything – has embraced biogas and the circular economy. FortisBC officials say such projects represent part of the company’s strategy to reduce its carbon footprint by increasing the volume of RNG in its natural gas, from about 1% now to 15% by 2030. As Scott Gramm, who manages RNG for FortisBC, says, “it makes use of an existing infrastructure. Build these plants, and we put the gas back into the system.”

Elsewhere in Canada, natural gas giants like ATCO, Énergir and Enbridge are building RNG ventures. In the case of ATCO, the company’s Energy Solutions division is building an RNG facility in Vegreville, Alberta, which will use a confection of agricultural waste and municipal organics. ATCO says the venture will produce enough RNG to fuel 2,500 homes and prevent the release of 20,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year.

In Toronto, meanwhile, Enbridge has teamed up with the city on a large-scale RNG project involving several municipal landfills in the Greater Toronto Area. Using industrial scale anaerobic digesters, the venture, which comes on stream this year, will yield 54 million cubic metres of RNG annually by 2025, thus offsetting about 115,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year.

“We should not be fooled by the rhetoric that has come out of certain parts of the fossil fuel industry, that renewable natural gas or hydrogen are going to be able to just cleanly and fully substitute for all of the current uses [of] natural gas.”

–Bora Plumptre, energy analyst, Pembina Institute

According to the Canadian Gas Association, gas utilities have set an “aspirational” target of 10% RNG by 2030, equivalent to a 14 megatonne (MT) reduction in carbon. (For context, Canada releases about 730 MT of greenhouse gases per year.) As Gramm points out, such collaborations are popping up across the U.S. as well, involving energy and utility behemoths like Pacific Gas and Electric and the Southern California Gas Company. “If you just google it,” he says, “you find more and more.”

According to Gramm, there are about 600 active facilities across North America. One that doesn’t involve a Big Gas partner has been developed by the City of Surrey, which developed a one-stop works facility where methane from green bin waste is captured, refined and then used to fuel municipal garbage trucks – a perfect circle.

These stories, however, remain the exceptions, even though biogas evangelists and some environmental groups have been pushing municipalities to undertake precisely these kinds of ventures for years.

By most accounts, including those produced by industry, only a tiny fragment of Canada’s biogas “resource” – 4%, according to ATCO – becomes marketable RNG. (It’s important to be clear what we mean by resource here: rotting piles of stuff from green bins, manure from livestock, agricultural waste from fields, and “biosolid” sludge from the bottom of wastewater treatment ponds.)

However, a 2020 evaluation commissioned by the federal government put the scale into perspective: if built out to its maximum potential, RNG production would provide the equivalent of just 3.3% of Canada’s current natural gas consumption, and 1.3% of Canada’s total energy consumption.

Europe, on the other hand, is a completely different story, with 17,400 biogas plants, which collectively account for about two-thirds of the world’s production capacity. Much of this goes toward electricity generation (instead of gas-fuelled home heating, as in many parts of Canada), as well as low-carbon transportation fuels.

The remarkable scale of the EU biofuel sector is the consequence of aggressive climate policy and geopolitics (reducing reliance on Russian natural gas). It also reflects the reality that on a crowded continent with little room for landfill sites, cities have been more likely to use technology – some of them controversial descendants of incinerators – to dispose of waste.

Canada’s municipalities are a long way from making those kinds of investments, and, as the federal government’s 2020 study shows, much of the biogas resource is agricultural waste, which means it’s not close to the markets where it’s needed most.

One could also ask if the natural gas giants are underwriting these (subsidized) showcase projects as a means of playing up their ESG (environmental, social and governance) bona fides until the long-awaited main event: a pivot to the mass production of hydrogen fuel derived from natural gas (a.k.a. blue hydrogen), with the resulting carbon emissions stowed away in abandoned oil wells – becomes economically viable.

“We should not be fooled by the rhetoric that has come out of certain parts of the fossil fuel industry, that renewable natural gas or hydrogen are going to be able to just cleanly and fully substitute for all of the current uses [of] natural gas,” cautions Bora Plumptre, an energy analyst at the Pembina Institute. “[RNG] is not going to be a silver bullet.”

Toronto journalist John Lorinc writes about cities, sustainability and business.

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