Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) in Canada
All across Canada, governments are taking bold initiatives to increase renewable energy generation, take action against climate change and meet global energy goals. One of the ways Canada has been doing that is by boosting the generation of renewable natural gas (RNG), also known as biogas (as it is commonly called outside of the energy industry).
Biogas is getting its share of attention because it is not only an energy source that could help in meeting the ever-increasing energy demand in Canada, but also an environment-friendly energy source and a smart waste management option. Unlike wind and solar energy, which everyone is fairly aware of, RNG is still an unclear subject for consumers.
Not to worry though — this article helps to sort some of the questions that come to mind when one talks about biogas or RNG.
What is renewable natural gas?
In terms of its composition, renewable natural gas (RNG), also known as sustainable natural gas (SNG), biogas (in crude form) or Biomethane, is the same as the natural gas that gets piped at home or business from the utility provider. Both traditional natural gas and RNG are primarily methane — which is responsible for the smell from decaying organic matter, near landfill or sewage power plant. What makes RNG different is the duration in which it gets generated, as well as the source through which it is generated. RNG is only a refined version of biogas, free of impurities and richer in methane content.
How is renewable natural gas generated?
First, let us understand what’s RNG. RNG is basically a purified form of biogas. Biogas is generated from the organic waste coming from landfills, treatment plants, cattle ranches. Both these terms are used exchangeably. Similar to what one can smell near a landfill site or sewage treatment plant, Biogas is also produced by the decomposition of the organic matter in absence of oxygen, just as the traditional natural gas produced inside the crust where there is no oxygen.
In the case of RNG, the organic matter is fed into an anaerobic digestor which is a huge tank consisting of micro-organisms and devoid of oxygen. These micro-organisms break down the organic matter into biogas and solid material as a byproduct (also known as digestate). These byproducts are mostly carbon dioxide and solid or semisolid biomass which is a rich source of nutrients and are popularly used as organic fertilizers, livestock bedding, or even used in construction material by mixing with wood or plastic. Based on the makeup of waste (popularly called feedstock in the industry), its water content, the temperature inside the digestor and few other factors, the process of bioproduction takes from 10 to at least 20 days for biogas production.
The biogas is further treated to remove impurities such as carbon dioxide, traces of Sulphur and other minor gases to produce methane-rich RNG, similar to the grade of traditional natural gas. This gas can be used for energy and electricity purposes just like the traditional natural gas.
Is renewable natural gas clean or carbon neutral?
RNG can be a renewable and cleaner source natural gas and can replace natural gas for meeting all energy purposes including electricity generation, space heating, cooking, fueling vehicles. Having more biogas plants can help in net waste reduction and better waste management. It also reduces soil and water pollution which could happen due to leaching of liquid in the soil on landfill sites or near any waste generation and storage site. It is also an economically profitable option, as it helps in saving operating costs land clearing, land drilling and reclamation, all of which is done for regular natural gas excavation. Since the fuel source comes from existing businesses of farming, ranching and landfills, an estimate by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) suggests that biogas generation saves the costs associated with waste remediation and benefits local economies.
Converting low-value waste to a high-value commodity also helps in developing a circular economy, which restores and regenerates waste and thus can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels in long run.
RNG is also a carbon-neutral gas as it uses the methane gas that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere thus processing the wasted gas and reducing it to carbon dioxide and water, both of which are less harmful as greenhouse gases than methane.
What are the types of renewable natural gas?
While biogas or RNG can be generated from any organic waste source. Most common sources remain organic waste from landfill or municipal waste, including organic food waste from:
- Animal manure coming from livestock activities
- Wastewater treatment plants
- Commercial facilities
Does Canada produce renewable natural gas?
Canada is the fourth-largest producer of natural gas in the world. Generating renewable natural gas can reduce the country’s dependence on traditional fossil fuels over time. Currently, most of the traditional natural gas production in Canada is used for electricity generation and heating. The Canadian Biogas Association, a collective voice focused on the biogas industry, mentions that the production of Canadian biogas from all major sources – agricultural organics (excluding energy crops), landfill gas, residential and commercial source separated organics (SSO), and municipal wastewater – accounts for 3% of Canada’s natural gas demand, equivalent to 2,420 million cubic meters (m3) per year of renewable natural gas. This represents up to 810 megawatts (MW) of electricity and 1.3% of Canada’s electricity demand.
According to a research conducted by the Canadian Biogas Association, there are 61 operational anaerobic digestion, or biogas, facilities in the agriculture and agri-food sector in Canada, and at least 5 facilities either planned, under construction, or in commissioning.
In terms of actual utilization, the numbers tell that more than 60% of the biogas energy produced is used for electricity generation for sale only followed by a mixed use of electricity and heating onsite. The provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta have the most anaerobic digesters, with Ontario accounting for 64%. Still, there is huge potential untapped.
Who are the renewable natural gas providers in Canada?
The provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta have the most anaerobic digesters, with Ontario accounting for 64 percent of the facilities.
Policy initiatives have been taken by the Government of Ontario to support renewable natural gas growth in the province and are ahead in the RNG installations and market in Canada. The main source of RNG is the wastewater treatment facilities followed by landfill gas capture. The Made-In Ontario Environmental Plan is a voluntary program that includes renewable natural gas options for customers, which are administered by Enbridge Gas, a natural gas utility.
The Ontario market also has a Municipal Greenhouse Gas Challenge, a multi-phase community-led action plan that would distribute some revenue from the carbon market to projects that would reduce GHG emissions and promote the transition to a low-carbon economy. Union Gas and StormFisher, an environment-based investment firm, have come together through the Agrifood Renewable Natural Gas for Transportation Demonstration Program and look to build a fueling station of RNG gas in London, Ontario, based on StormFisher’s RNG production.
FortisBC, in British Columbia, is one of the leading providers and has been actively providing renewable natural gas to residential and commercial customers since 2010. It has 4 active facilities at the Salmon Arm Landfill, Fraser Valley Biogas (agricultural and food processing waste), Glenmore Landfill (in Kelowna), and Seabreeze Dairy Farm in Delta (dairy cattle manure and Metro Vancouver organic waste collection). Fortis is developing two more facilities in Lulu Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Richmond and Dicklands Farm in Chilliwack which are likely to become operational RNG producers in the next few years. In March 2017, the province of BC amended the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regulation to include a renewable portfolio allowance of up to 5% RNG on the natural gas system. This creates a greater opportunity to grow the renewable natural gas supply in BC further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Quebec’s Environment Policy Act has helped with putting the province as the front runner in RNG plant installation in Canada. Key policy initiatives include organic materials ban from landfills by 2022, incentives for municipal capital, carbon tax, use of renewable natural gas project by project. Quebec also sells RNG in California since 2015. According to a study conducted by Delloitte and WSP, RNG production is a major driver of economic development across the province.
Quebec’s largest natural gas distributor, Energir (formerly Gaz Métro), has installed the first liquefied refuelling station in Canada for heavy-duty vehicles at Rivière-du-Loup. The station receives fuel from purified biogas produced by local landfill sites and the Rivière-du-Loup biogas plant. The annual production of liquefied biomethane at the Rivière-du-Loup plant is estimated at 3 million m3, which will lead to savings in GHG emissions of more than 7,000 tons.
Alberta is the largest producer of natural gas in Canada. This fossil fuel-rich province has huge deposits of both oil and natural gas. According to a study by the Conference Board of Canada, Alberta also has the highest rate of waste generation, which also becomes an opportunity for the province to harness RNG. Moving towards RNG is most beneficial for this province as it will help to reduce its carbon footprint. Because of the considerable amount of feedstock resources in the province, Alberta has a significant opportunity to boost its economy with renewable natural gas production. Xebec Adsorption Inc, a global provider of clean energy solutions will be investing in the province for generation and sale of RNG to a large scale utility customer in Alberta.
The pros and downsides of renewable natural gas (RNG)
Renewable natural gas has many environmental benefits, it improves local economies and creates job opportunities. However, RNG still remains less popular than other energy sources, and several factors can explain this situation.
- There is still a lack of awareness among the conventional energy generators, as well as the public, about its potential benefits, so there is less demand for these plants. A study by the Biogas Association of Canada indicates that both public and the regulatory bodies raise concern over pathogen infiltration. However, the association is working to collaborate to set strict standards and at the same time engage with decision-makers in the government to create a more conducive environment for this technology.
- Another major challenge is the upfront capital cost. This includes the capital cost of the plant itself, feedstock procurement and the pipeline connection. Estimates suggest that cost varies from as low as $8/GJ to up to $20/GJ. The cost also varies based on size and location. Even the lower-end range is still higher than the average natural gas cost, which makes it less lucrative for a startup or a medium-sized industry to generate energy out of the waste produced by them. One of the most impactful ways of bringing costs down is by generating interest in this technology through public or stakeholder awareness. If the stakeholders are aware of the benefits and are willing to take up the technology, it can lead to the development of low-cost technology and consequently more deployment.
- Pipeline access and distribution remain major challenges. According to a report by the Biogas Association of Canada, major gas utilities like Enbridge Gas Distribution, FortisBC, Energir, and Union Gas have all demonstrated a willingness to accept RNG, but they all have their own technical specifications for gas quality, grid connection and capacity management that can get challenging for any potential company that wishes to go the green way.
- Getting a continuous and large amount of feedstock is also reported as a challenge for having a continuous running. This concern is most notable in the agriculture and agri-food sectors. However, existing regulations for agriculture waste management need to be reset and restructured to give a clear pathway for at least these two sectors. Additionally, as on now, only a limited kind of waste is being rerouted for RNG generation.
- Technology is another major limitation that is considered by the biogas industry as a major hurdle towards the uptake of this technology. Present technologies on a large scale are only efficient to a certain limit and able to run on full feedstock.
RNG and more green energy options for your company
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