We need to get behind renewable natural gas

RNG is produced from food scraps, manure

BY SUPPORTING the production of renewable natural gas, or RNG, Massachusetts residents have the opportunity to boost the state’s commitment to reducing food waste in landfills while increasing the supply of clean energy and reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere.

RNG is a carbon-free fuel alternative derived by extracting methane from decomposing food scraps and animal manure in a process that sustainably repurposes waste products into a renewable power source. RNG is transported and distributed through existing infrastructure, so there is no need to build new pipelines.

Massachusetts is a national leader in the fight against food waste. Since 2014, the Commonwealth has banned commercial organic waste disposal in landfills, which has inspired companies to come up with innovative recycling solutions such as sending scraps and expired products to RNG-producing facilities. But there is more to be done to confront the epic challenges of climate change and waste reduction.

To bolster government and industry efforts to reduce food waste in landfills and mitigate harmful greenhouse gas emissions, lawmakers need to promote a policy environment that incentivizes investment in the technologies that produce RNG.

Three recent policy developments in the Commonwealth provide the necessary tools to assess both the potential supply viability and obstacles to market for RNG:

  • The climate change bill that the Legislature enacted and Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law.
  • The Clean Energy Climate Plan prepared by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
  • The Department of Public Utilities proceeding relative to the future of natural gas.

While each of these actions produce distinct stakeholder outreach, data collection, findings, and rule-making processes, the potential for RNG resource development exists in each and needs to be a part of all three.

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, is naturally released into the atmosphere as discarded food and animal manure decomposes. Alternatively, anaerobic digesters combine dairy farm manure with food and beverage waste. That waste is then recycled — microorganisms convert sugars, fats, and other compounds into biogas that can then be used to fuel vehicles, generate electricity, and heat homes and offices. By mitigating harmful methane emissions, the process cleans the air while producing clean energy.

Massachusetts’ Commercial Food Material Disposal Ban acts as an incentive for high-waste producing organizations to participate in waste-to-energy partnerships. To build on government decarbonization efforts and corporate sustainability goals, both policymakers and the public must be further educated on the benefits of anaerobic digester technology and the diverse applications for RNG.

The United States has 200 anaerobic digestion systems, 13 of which are installed in Massachusetts. Each digester can produce enough biogas to fuel about 2,000 homes. In addition, the process produces low carbon fertilizer that host farms can use to support regenerative agriculture practices while also providing farms with an alternative income stream — a crucial financial lifeline as we face continued economic uncertainty.

Our world needs a diverse portfolio of solutions to address the extensive and untold challenges of climate change. We cannot afford to place all bets on solar and wind. RNG is a necessary and complementary resource.

Meet the Author

Bill Ryan

Public affairs manager, Massachusetts Coalition for Sustainable Energy
Sufficient RNG production could recycle enough organic waste to supply all current commercial gas demand nationwide, 75 percent of current residential demand, or 45 percent of industrial demand.

As Massachusetts continues to expand its food waste repurposing efforts, lack of consideration for the potential of RNG ignores a readily available, two-pronged solution for sustainable practices. The fact is, waste is inevitable and unavoidable, but with increased support for policies that advance RNG production, the energy sector and our partners in agriculture and the food industry will be better equipped to face the environmental challenges posed by greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and organic waste.

Bill Ryan is the public affairs manager for the Massachusetts Coalition for Sustainable Energy, which represents n early two dozen of the state’s larger business, employer, housing, and labor organizations, including Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, nine chambers of commerce, and IBEW 103.