When policymakers and ordinary people hear the words “natural gas”, the common picture is a highly flammable gas pulled from the ground in a carbon intensive and environmentally stressful process. They may also associate it with the terms exhaustible and fossil fuel. However, that same gas that is pumped from deep within the Earth is also produced naturally much closer to home on Earth’s surface from human activities.

Methane, mixed with smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, is naturally produced by organic processes like the digestion process for livestock, wastewater treatment, and even inedible food waste. By harnessing this renewable natural gas (RNG) out of a combination of industries that already have existing infrastructure to collect organic waste, and public services that can be easily retrofitted to collect biogas, the U.S. can have a plentiful and cheap energy source to speed the transition to renewables.

Most notably, these are natural byproducts and emissions that would be entering the atmosphere and advancing climate change. By capturing them, we can mitigate climate impacts and gain a useable fuel. Combined with natural gas heat efficiency and energy density, which emits less than half the CO2 of coal, RNG may become a double edge sword in the fight to preserve the environment and promote growth through abundant energy.

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Renewable biogas forms when bacteria break down biological matter and produce gas as a byproduct. Due to urban areas having large wastewater treatment facilities and agricultural land also producing massive amounts of organic waste, biogas can be utilized in both areas. Estimates from 2019 show that only 25 large-scale livestock operations produce 224 million kWh of electricity from the organic waste collected at their facilities. By recycling the massive amount of food waste and animal manure into biogas capture facilities, the U.S. could save the estimated 50 million tons of organic waste that is incinerated or sent to landfills. That 50 million tons of waste has the energy content of 6 billion gallons of diesel fuel. This massive amount of untapped energy made available by the U.S. agricultural and wastewater treatment facilities is currently being tapped into by a mixture of public and private entities.

A single biogas partnership between Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, and Dominion Energy has resulted in a $250 million investment to cover and harvest renewable natural gas from the more than 2,000 hog farms contracted with Smithfield in North Carolina, Utah, and Missouri. Four projects within this partnership will produce enough energy to power 14,000 homes and businesses. On top of the energy produced, agricultural RNG production brings jobs to rural communities, produces bio-fertilizer as the byproduct of anaerobic digestion, and improves an area’s water quality, all while creating a sustaining circular economy.

An urban or suburban alternative to agricultural RNG harvesting may be wastewater treatment plant RNG harvesting. Due to both the space constraints and lack of available animal bio-waste, the digestion of solids removed from wastewater can be utilized similarly to agricultural waste. The city of Janesville, WI utilizes wastewater treatment RNG to power all of the city’s utility vehicles. This ability to power vehicles has the potential to decarbonize the transportation sector, which has struggled to find suitable substitutes to fossil fuels. Savings on powering city vehicles or heavier duty diesel fueled vehicles translate to over $270,000 for a 90,000 gallon per year diesel vehicle on a price of 3.00/gallon of diesel. The city of Vancouver in Canada has also constructed and retrofitted water treatment facilities to provide power for over 600 homes with projections that the waste available will only continue to grow, driving up the amount of energy the plants produce.

The scalability, reduction of landfill and incineration wastes, and potential for urban centers to produce an equal amount of organic waste to feed RNG collectors make biogas a massive boon for the U.S. energy grid. The major hurdle to widespread RNG utilization is integrating urban centers into diverting organic wastes to collectors instead of traditional landfills. Once urban centers begin to integrate renewable natural gas into its energy makeup, the decrease in CO2 emissions from the U.S. will continue.

Policymakers and industry leaders should consider ways to incorporate existing carbon offset programs with renewable natural gas. By investing in underfunded projects in need of innovation, scaleability, and funds, offsets may help jumpstart the methane capture industry and convert it into a new energy source as well. This has the potential to reduce methane entering the atmosphere and increase our energy production, both decreasing our impact on the environment and promoting human progress and flourishing.


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Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.