Renewable Gas and New Processes: A Place for Natural Gas in a Carbon-Free Energy Mix?

About the author: Emile Lavergne is a Mindfirst Blogger and a Masters in Global Affairs Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, Ontario.


The latest PipeThink seminar dealt with the topic of natural gas infrastructure in a low-carbon energy future. The seminar did what every good seminar should; it introduced new and interesting ideas, it prompted discussion and it left the audience – myself included – with questions.

Back-dropped by the announcement that Ontario’s draft cap and trade regulations would be unveiled the next day, the seminar was a timely foray into a lesser-known type of “renewable energy”: Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). You read that right. The name struck me too when I read it on the event description. The presenter explained: natural gas being pumped out of the ground is a fossil fuel, but there are other, renewable sources of the gas. Natural waste facilities, landfills and other sources of bio-waste can be digested to create a bio-gas that would be delivered into homes and businesses via pipelines. Although industrial scale RNG is fairly new, its adoption into the existing natural gas infrastructure should, in theory, be fairly seamless. Ideally, it would lead to the reduction of GHGs from non-electricity based energy sources. The main barrier to RNG, it seems, is the lack of adoption and the seeming lack of interest from policy-makers to push natural gas producers to reduce emissions. Its place within the cap and trade regime is unclear and there has been little to no call by policy makers for natural gas producers to explore renewable alternatives. RNG paints itself as the alternative we didn’t think we had.

Another presenter discussed research currently being conducted at the University of Toronto to produce a low-carbon energy source that actively decarbonizes the environment. The ultimate aim of the research is to take CO2 and through electrocatalysis, obtain CH4, also known as methane, or natural gas. This would transform CO2 from an unwanted emission to an ingredient in natural gas, abating the levels of CO2 emitted. Although this technology is not fully developed, the research suggests an alternative to current sources of natural gas, which could fit right into pre-existing pipeline infrastructure. Although there is no timeline for finalizing the research, I’ll admit I was amazed at the possibilities this process could unlock, especially with regards to sustainable development in high-emitting regions.

During the discussions that followed the presentations, it was pointed out that if renewable natural gas were to be compared to other energy sources, it should be compared to other renewable types of energy given that renewable natural gas produces no carbon emissions and, like other renewables, still stands to benefit from technological improvements which are likely to impact its economics, making it more affordable. Fair point; if we are to compare renewable natural gas to other energy sources, let’s compare it with other renewables. What are the price points for the infrastructure set-up and price per kilowatt-hour? Will the adoption or switch to RNG create jobs? Will this technology drive R&D and innovation? Will price be volatile? Will supply? How well does this technology play into a diversified energy-sourcing future? Is this technology scalable and replicable outside of Canada? And finally, will the adoption of this energy source lead to an entrenchment of other, carbon-intensive energy sources? Before policy makers, developers, and engineers decide to dedicate resources to RNG, it must be placed in its proper context and indirect impacts such as entrenchment of existing technologies must be considered.

If we are going to compare RNG to other technologies, let us do so in a way that accurately encompasses all of the impacts of the adoption of this technology. Let us be critical, but also remember the goals the province and the country have recently set after the COP21 agreement. Let us remember that for years the scientific community has called for a reduction of greenhouse gases and that a lower carbon intensity in energy is key to making this a reality. Let us compare RNG fairly, to other renewable types of energy, but keep the larger context in mind, the reason why we were likely all sitting in that room; something has to change. Maybe RNG has a place in the solution we collectively put forward.

Leaving the seminar, I am full of new ideas and knowledge but hungry for more. I wonder if renewable natural gas will be deployed, if the research discussed will ever make its way to market and wide adoption, and most importantly, if behind this carbon neutral energy source, there are unseen costs (or benefits). As a graduate student in Global Affairs and Environmental Studies, my mind wandered and led me to wonder if and how RNG and the research described could be applied outside of Canada. If a community is choosing to expand their grid, will they hook it up to solar panels, RNG pipelines, or another type of renewable energy? Time will tell. In the meantime, I await the impact of this new research and RNG with impatience and cautious optimism.

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