Renewable natural gas production is on the rise in the United States, but new research from the World Resources Institute shows the potential to help fuel fleets of heavy-duty trucks and buses is larger than previously thought.
In a comparison that provides a sense of RNG’s potential, the global research nonprofit says, “About 50 million tons of unused organic waste is produced every year in the US, which is the energy-content equivalent of 6 billion gallons of diesel — or 15% of the diesel consumed by the country’s heavy-duty trucks and buses last year.”
That waste could be a significant opportunity for companies with sizable vehicle fleets. Although early adopters like UPS are using renewable natural gas as a low-carbon fuel option to meet sustainability goals, they represent just a fraction of RNG’s potential, according to WRI.
The report says that production of RNG from organic waste for use as a vehicle fuel is an emerging strategy that businesses are pursuing. RNG makes use of waste-derived methane and helps lower vehicle fleets’ carbon footprints.
“Private companies — particularly waste disposal services and companies that use heavy-duty vehicles for freight — are beginning to add RNG as a domestic, renewable, low-carbon fuel option in their efforts to reduce GHG emissions,” the report says.
Businesses undertaking RNG projects are seeing benefits beyond potential GHG reductions. The report says those benefits can include improved local air quality and associated public health benefits, reduction in waste management costs, and avoided price volatility of fossil fuels.
Over a five-year period, from 2011 to 2016, RNG production in the United States grew from 1.4 million ethanol-equivalent gallons to nearly 190 million. That growth was driven in large part by economic incentives provided by renewable and low-carbon fuel policies, WRI noted.
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, WRI says. Despite the potential, the report cautions that barriers remain. Negotiating with utilities or pipeline operators can be a challenge. Another: high up-front costs.
“While it costs more to produce RNG than conventional natural gas, low-carbon fuel markets and other sources of revenue and incentives are allowing producers to offer RNG at competitive prices and make returns on their investments relatively quickly in some cases,” the report says. “Some existing projects have payback periods ranging from immediate to about 10 years.”
Research from the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas published this month shows an 85% growth in renewable natural gas production facilities in the United States and Canada since 2014. Four years ago there were 41 projects. The coalition has at least 76 facilities mapped now.
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