Natural gas is already facing competition from wind and solar in some markets, and biogas has also been nipping at its heels. What biogas lacks, though, is the flexibility and market reach provided by renewable energy certificates–until now, that is. A new REC plan for biogas is up and running, and it could give natural gas a real run for the money.
Renewable Natural Gas Certificates: A Great Idea!
Renewable energy certificates have played a key role in accelerating access to renewable energy in the US. That’s because REC holders get to claim part (or all) of the output from a wind or solar farm, even though they don’t have physical access to the clean kilowatts. Financial backers can greenlight more projects knowing that willing REC buyers are waiting in the wings.
The important thing is that the projects get built, and someone, somewhere, gets their hands on renewable energy instead of going to fossil fuel. RECs could do the same thing for biogas, too.
One result would be a sharp uptick in biogas recovery systems at dairy farms and other livestock operations. That’s something EPA has been trying to encourage since 1994.
Landfills and wastewater treatment systems are other likely candidates for biogas recovery. Activity is already under way in those areas, too. Fort Benning, Georgia is among the notable early adopters of landfill biogas. On the wastewater biogas side, early adopters include New York City, San Antonio, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
The Devil Is In The Details
The new biogas certificate program is a first-of-its-kind pilot program, so environmental advocates and industry watchers are watching closely.
Based in Minneapolis, the projects is administered by M-RETS (the Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System). The utility CenterPoint Energy proposed the biogas program last August and is the first client.
Last week, reporter Frank Jossi of US Energy News took a (very) deep dive into the new biogas program. Follow that link to support long form journalism!
For those of you on the go, the gist of it is that an REC-type program for biogas would do two things. In addition to providing credits for renewable energy, M-RETS would also track the carbon footprint of biogas production from each source, along with other environmental impacts. That’s a complicated, granular task, but the biogas market is in need of transparency and consistency.
Natural Gas Losing
RECs for biogas would not only meet fossil natural gas on the plane of electricity generation. RECs would also enable biogas to challenge natural gas building-by-building, for heating, cooling, cooking, and other gas-powered use points.
The buildings market generally does not get as much media attention as the latest whiz-bang development in the wind and solar, but it’s a big one. Earlier this month, the US Energy Information Agency updated its natural gas overview and calculated that residential and commercial buildings together account for 29% of US natural gas consumption.
The problem for natural gas is that a movement is already afoot to push the building sector off fossil fuel and into electricity, ideally generated by renewables. A more flexible biogas market would provide utilities and ratepayers with an additional non-fossil option.
Energy Storage = Trouble On The Horizon
Natural gas fans still have plenty to cheer about. After all, the Trump* administration is promoting the export market, and the booming plastics and petrochemical industries also provide a healthy outlet for US shale gas producers.
That’s the good news. On the flip side, overseas markets will eventually dry up as the global economy decarbonizes. In one sign of things to come, the EU is a major gas market targeted by the Trump administration for US exports, but EU gas demand is projected to fall this year — somewhat ironically, partly due to warmer weather.
The anti-plastic movement is also gathering steam on the corporate level, and those hoping for new life from the emerging hydrogen fuel cell market could have their dreams dashed by renewable hydrogen (for those of you new to the topic, natural gas has been the primary source for hydrogen, but renewable options are emerging).
More to the point, last week Forbes published a contributed piece from the nonprofit energy policy group Energy Innovation that lays out the case for renewables plus storage to beat new natural gas power plants on cost, while also providing competitive grid services.
That’s already beginning to happen in some markets. Nevada’s NV Energy is a good example, and regulators in Minnesota are considering a proposal requiring utilities to include energy storage in their long range planning. Analysts are already predicting that the proposal would kill off gas “peaker” plants that are designed to ramp up during high-demand periods.
Energy Innovation foresees the trend spreading rapidly throughout the US, to the extent that cost is no longer a barrier for renewable energy. However, the organization cautions that site acquisition and transmission will continue to be sticking points (just ask the Grain Belt Express wind transmission project or, for that matter, Cape Wind).
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to Rocky Mountain Institute, which is spearheading the gas-to-electricity campaign, to see how that’s going, so stay tuned.
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Photo (cropped): US Department of Energy MONITOR program.