By the Blouin News Business staff

FEATURE: Joanna Underwood on renewable natural gas

by in U.S..

Heavy trucks like this one  outside Watford City, North Dakota, July 23, 2013, are prime candidates to switch to RNG. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Heavy trucks like this one by Watford City, ND, 4/23/13, are prime candidates to switch to RNG. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Tuesday, UPS agreed to use renewable natural gas (RNG) to fuel part of its vehicle fleet in California, beginning this month. This is the latest example of RNG’s growing momentum, which has been given an extra boost by the world’s increasing focus on mitigating climate change. Joanna D. Underwood, president of the U.S.-based NGO Energy Vision and an expert on renewable natural gas, talked with Blouin News about this sustainable fuel’s exciting growth in the U.S. and abroad. (Full disclosure: I am a former Energy Vision intern and an occasional editorial consultant.)

As nations gear up for the major U.N. summit on climate change this December, many strategies are being championed. Quotas for renewable energy in national grids, binding limits on emissions, and ensuring domestic energy security are all topics that merit extensive analysis. Solar and wind are sure to receive lots of attention, but renewable natural gas may too.

Energy Vision’s overarching goal is to bring about a revolutionary shift away from fossil fuels, by concentrating on power generation and transportation fuels. In 2009, it first became aware of RNG’s potential by looking at prominent European projects such as Oslo’s municipal buses, which run on RNG generated from the city’s sewage treatment plants. When organic matter decomposes, it generates biogas, which is mostly a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. Left alone, biogas from landfills, sewage treatment plants, and compost heaps escapes into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. But if captured, biogas can be cleaned to a standard high enough to become an alternative fuel for vehicles that use natural gas.

RNG, which in 2009 was not even emergent in the U.S., “met all of the criteria for sustainability,” Underwood said. When taken from a landfill, RNG results in a 90% lifecycle reduction in greenhouse gases. “And if you instead take those biogases from food and yard waste that’s processed in an anaerobic digester separately, you can get something that’s net-zero. And you can get something that’s carbon net-negative, where you’re really sequestering more methane-laded gases than you’re generating.”

RNG is quite simply “extraordinary,” all the more so because it is not a technology “on the horizon,” but rather one that exists commercially today, Underwood emphasized. Granted, if additional incentives existed RNG would be adopted faster, but the fact that it is real and can be introduced locally without a federal program is hugely important for Energy Vision. “Local municipal leaders and waste managers could be the drivers of change, and you could build this up across the country in communities and solid waste facilities,” she continued.

There are currently RNG vehicle fuel projects in eight U.S. states, mostly using landfill-gas, though some utilize anaerobic digesters. Private companies and municipalities alike have benefited from major cost savings and decreased emissions after turning their organic waste into fuel. These reductions are particularly sizeable when heavy vehicles like garbage trucks and long-haul trucks switch from diesel to RNG. The economics are of course dependent on the particulars of each project, but “in general the payback period we’ve seen is between three and ten years,” Underwood said. Because a decade may be too long for some investors, many projects are dependent on government grants, mostly at the state-level. “For those of us who take a longer view of the world, after the upfront costs of installing the equipment are covered, they basically got a very cheap and totally reliable homegrown fuel,” she added.

It’s good for decades. You don’t have to worry your contract is going to run out. Organic waste won’t run out.

In 2011, the Canadian city of Surrey pioneered North America’s first large-scale closed-loop RNG vehicle fuel system. It entails people separating their food scraps and yard clippings from other trash; the organic waste is then transported by RNG-powered garbage trucks to a waste treatment plant, which produces RNG for the same trucks. In 2013, Sacramento followed Surrey’s lead and become the first large city in the U.S. to implement a closed-loop RNG transportation system. The project cost $12.5 million, with an initial estimated payback period of ten years, but city officials found that they were saving $1 million in fuel costs every year. “So it was considered a success right from the get-go,” Underwood noted.

Grand Junction, Colorado is the latest municipality to inaugurate a RNG for transportation scheme, on April 22, bringing the total number of projects in the U.S. to about a dozen. But more are on the way, despite the overall lack of active support from Washington, with one notable exception — the Department of Energy did help fund Energy Vision’s flagship guide, Turning Waste into Vehicle Fuel: A Step-by-Step Guide for Communities, published in 2013 because there was not one out there already, Underwood said.  She added that the federal government “is not in the way nor opposed” to RNG’s expansion, but that Washington is so dysfunctional currently that RNG growth is being driven instead by local and state governments.

Underwood knows that it is not easy for people to change the way they’ve been doing things, so Energy Vision goes beyond merely raising awareness of RNG’s benefits. It holds periodic workshops in different parts of the country, which have lead to new RNG initiatives. The workshops aim to bring together key relevant regional stakeholders as well as national industry leaders to discuss the various opportunities and obstacles around RNG. The workshops facilitate project design and then Energy Vision helps find local partners (such as corporate sponsors or public-private partnerships) to move it forward.

There is encouraging news for the growth of RNG on the international front as well. In September, Energy Vision’s Vice President Matt Tomich participated in Beijing’s annual Zhongguancun Technology Forum as part of a U.S. delegation. Assembled by Stony Brook University and Tongji University in Beijing, the forum included scientists, government officials, entrepreneurs, and environmental leaders. Upon his return, Tomich said that of all the energy topics discussed, converting waste to energy and fuel attracted the greatest interest. As a result, participants requested that parts of Energy Vision’s how-to guide be translated into Chinese; the NGO is in discussions to make that happen. If China’s urban planning officials — who tend to do mega-projects — get on board with RNG, the global impacts (in both emissions reduction and publicity) would be enormous.

Likewise, a new theater which may be poised for RNG development is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), starting with Tunisia. The country hosted the 5th annual SWEEP-Net conference on integrated solid waste management from April 14-16, in which several hundred people from nine MENA nations attended. Underwood did a presentation at the conference, and afterwards said that there was enormous interest in enacting RNG projects, especially given the economic and environmental benefits. “It was a hit!” she told Blouin News.

Tunisia is a prime candidate to develop RNG projects, Underwood explained. Having very little in terms of domestic hydrocarbon resources, the country imports oil and gas. Furthermore, it has a restless, young population with an unemployment rate over 15%, so it needs to create jobs and grow its economy. Meanwhile, 70% of its waste is organic, and its nine large landfills are filling rapidly. RNG “wasn’t on the drawing board at all” there, but it can help with all of these problems, Underwood said, adding that “it won’t solve them all, but it addresses them all.” She was enthusiastically met by members of Tunisia’s parliament and the company that operates the country’s largest landfill, which wants to do the country’s first landfill gas-to-energy project. Energy Vision is now considering going back to Tunisia to do a full-day RNG workshop, and translating some of its how-to guide into French for use there.

While Tunisia is small geographically and in population (with nearly 11 million people, compared to approximately 200 million in the rest of the MENA region), it is still very much in the global spotlight as a struggling young democracy. One successful RNG project there would attract enormous interest from the other countries that participate in the annual SWEEP-Net conferences, Underwood predicted. Because the pioneering RNG projects are all in developed countries, a Tunisian version could serve as a model for RNG projects in developing countries.

So Energy Vision is working on many fronts to bring about widespread growth in RNG. Its perspective is global: “We are profoundly aware that every day there are some 200,000 more people on the face of the planet,” Underwood said, so there is enormous time pressure “to change the way we live and make it sustainable.” But she acknowledges that change happens slowly, especially when people are accustomed to doing things in a particular way. Undaunted, the NGO will push hard to have RNG become a high priority on the agenda of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. Underwood said that the conference aims to have nations commit to concrete strategies to reduce their harmful emissions — an ideal setting for RNG projects, which boast reliable results at affordable costs.

And Energy Vision will continue to facilitate more RNG projects in the U.S. In the next five years, Underwood wants this technology to roll out big, with projects in every state. “And there is a tipping point. When you have enough projects, and enough interest, and enough success, all of a sudden change happens.” Since Energy Vision first advocated natural gas engines instead of diesel engines for refuse trucks in 2003, natural gas passed such a tipping point and is now phasing out diesel as the primary fuel for the waste transportation industry. Currently over half of all new orders for garbage trucks in the U.S. have natural gas engines, which have been recognized by the industry as better across-the-board.

Underwood thinks that the tipping point for RNG will come when a few major cities adopt closed-loop waste-to-fuel projects, or when the total number of commercial and municipal RNG vehicle fuel projects grows from the current dozen to “a few dozen.” In that scenario, RNG would truly take off over the next five to ten years. One of the next big RNG developments Energy Vision is working on is for New York City.  It “would be an astonishing development” to see some of the city’s organic waste being turned into vehicle fuel, Underwood said. Energy Vision is currently working with the company Long Island Compost, which has a 60-acre site ready and is in the final stages of getting a permit for an anaerobic digester there. Located less than 60 miles from New York City, Underwood said it would be within range to take some of the city’s collected organic waste. She was quite optimistic: “This would be big. This would be huge! And it can be done!”

Keep your eyes on RNG — with support from environmentalists, businesses, and elected officials, its growth is just beginning.


(This post was updated after publication to clarify several details about Energy Vision’s workshops and the Sacramento project’s fuel savings.)