Biomethane for Energy and Fuel

OK. I admit it. I am writing this article from a Summit about cow poop. No, this isn’t a joke to get 8-year olds rolling on the floor with laughter. This is serious.

I am reporting from the inaugural National Biomethane Summit, in Sacramento, California, where over 300 attendees including elected officials, government agencies, farmers, ranchers, landfill owners, facility owners and operators, technology leaders, researchers, regional planners, and carbon trading experts.

Biomethane is renewable natural gas because it is from biological sources. In some areas, biomethane is called renewable gas. Biomethane is a low carbon fuel – CH4. John Boesel, President of CALSTART, calls biomethane “Our lowest carbon fuel.” Just like the fossil fuel version of natural gas, biomethane can be converted into electricity or fuel.

Making money from meadow muffins is helping dairy farmers stay in business. Among the Western United Dairymen, 18 projects that capture biomethane from manure are generating 4.425 MW of electricity. Hilarides Dairy also converts enough biomethane into fuel to power two of its heavy-duty and five pick-up trucks. Michael Marsh, CEO of the Western United Dairymen quipped, “This smells like an opportunity.”

Dallas Tonsager, Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is a former dairyman who sees big economic opportunity in methane from manure. Since 2003, USDA has helped 121 projects with co-funding and/or loan guarantees. These projects have generated 449 GW hours/year of electricity, reducing emissions 384,664 metric tons of CO2e and displacing 8 million gallons of oil.

The 121 projects include WI 24, PA 18, CA 14, NY 14, and VT 7. There are opportunities in every state. USDA is encouraging the growth of biomethane for energy and fuel. This is definitely a “shovel ready” opportunity to create green jobs.

Across the nation, ranchers, farmers, landfill operators, and all that generate agricultural waste, forest residue, and municipal waste can increasingly become energy independent. Through anaerobic digestion much of their biological waste can be converted into biogas which can run electrical generators, turbines, or fuel cells to generate electricity. Biogas can also be converted to cleaner biomethane for cleaner electricity and renewable fuel. These operations can generate their own electricity and fuel their own vehicles. Increasingly, excess electricity and fuel can be sold as added revenue streams.

A growing number of our nation’s buses, refuse trucks, delivery vans, airport and port equipment has been converted from diesel to natural gas. Michael Gallagher, CEO of Westport Innovations (WPRT), has already sold 20,000 engines for such applications. He estimates that 20 percent of our nation’s diesel vehicles could be running on biomethane produced in the United States.

Nations like Russia and Iran that control the largest reserves of natural gas may not like this trend of making our own natural gas, but if we want energy independence then we need to follow W.C. Field’s advice, “Take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”

Before our growing population with its output of waste puts us hip deep in this slop, we want to do something useful like make money converting all this waste into energy and fuel. Currently, as the waste decomposes, a greenhouse gas twenty times more destructive than carbon dioxide – methane – goes into the stratosphere, putting our future in a pressure cooker. The whole thing stinks.

There is a climate payoff as well as help with energy independence. California with its Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) has put teams of scientists to work calculating well-to-wheels, or in this case waste-to-wheels, lifecycle emissions using the newly developed GREET 1.8 model. Biomethane has 4 times less lifecycle emissions than gasoline in the LCFS analysis. Because biomethane avoids release of the destructive greenhouse gas, biomethane into an internal combustion engine vehicle shows fewer emissions than electricity into a far more efficient electric vehicle.

In transportation, we will see the growing use of renewable electricity powering everything from city light-rail to city cars. We will also see the growing use of biomethane powering buses and the vehicles used by the biomethane producers. In Orange Country, California, where thousands of electric vehicles are used, there are also several hundred refuse trucks and public transit buses using biomethane from the nearby Bowerman Landfill where biogas is converted into liquid natural gas (LNG).

The Orange County Sanitation District is bringing online a combined heat and power plant developed by Air Products (APD) and Fuel Cell Energy (FCEL) that converts municipal waste into electricity, heat, and hydrogen fuel. In the county, hydrogen vehicles are in use by city fleets such as Santa Ana, the University of California, Irvine, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and even individuals that drive Honda (HMC) Clarities and GM Fuel Cell Equinoxes. This breakthrough innovation results in record toilet-to-tank efficiency. Orange County Register Article

Texas, of course, thinks bigger than California. In Dallas, the McCommas Bluff Landfill will achieve 95 percent methane recovery from 30 million tons of waste. Output will scale from 35,000 gasoline gallon equivalents (GGE) per day to 122,500 GGE. Using a novel leachate recirculation process for early capture of biomethane would shrink the landfill growth by 3 feet per day, adding years of life to the landfill.

Summit attendees had mixed reactions about the idea of using biomethane as a vehicle fuel instead of the more common approach of making electricity by running biogas in large ICE gensets. Renewable electricity is in big demand as utilities across the nation struggle to meet renewable portfolio standards (RPS). Natural gas prices, however, are down 70 percent from their peak, making biomethane for fuel a losing proposition unless there is government funding or carbon credits to sell at a significant price.

But new ICE gensets increasingly cannot be permitted. Regulators have greatly tightened standards on emission of health damaging criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases. In California, air quality regulations are forcing farmers, landfill, and waste operators to spend more on clean-up of biogas. Turbines, fuel cells, and conversion to fuel are becoming more promising options. Regulators are also helping with selective co-funding of some projects.

Biofuels have gathered significant opposition in much of the world. Biomethane has avoided the food for fuels controversy associated with ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy and palm oil. Biomethane is normally processed from waste. Biomethane has over four times the energy production than corn ethanol from an acre of land. Clean Fleet Biofuels Reports

These challenges are also opportunities for Waste Management Inc (WMI). Of their 370 landfills, 33 percent already produce methane for energy, the rest flare the gas due to economics or regulatory difficulty in using ICE gensets to produce electricity. About 1,000 of Waste Management’s fleet of trucks run on either LNG or CNG creating the opportunity to produce their own fuel. 2,500 trucks run on diesel with WMI plans to hybridize.

Waste Management landfills contain significant organic waste which is suited for anaerobic digestion. WMI also captures significant waste that is lignin which is appropriate for its waste-to-energy plants. In the long-term it may be economical to convert the lignin to biofuel in a gasification process.

Can biomethane scale to a size that will impact United States needs for energy and fuel? Yes. Sweden has been an early leader in using biomethane. Over half of their natural gas for transportation vehicles such as buses and cars comes from biomethane sources such as municipal waste and agricultural waste. Biomethane is part of Sweden’s strategy to be petroleum free.

In 1970, 77 percent of Sweden’s energy came from oil, but by 2003 that figure had fallen to 32 percent. In 2006, about 40 million cubic meters of renewable biomethane, “enough to support 1,000 buses and refuse trucks and 9,000 light duty vehicles.” In Sweden, light-duty vehicles cost an average of 70 percent of the cost of a petrol fueled vehicle. The opposite occurs in the United States, with the Honda Civic CNG being the only available CNG passenger car.

Biomethane is also important to Sweden being energy independent. Russia has famously flexed its political muscle by temporarily cutting-off the natural gas pipeline supply that is critical to Europe’s energy and heating. Sweden already has 230 biomethane plants build including 138 from sewage waste water and 60 from landfills. Some Swedish dairy farmers are making more money from manure than from milk.

A decade from now, cost effective large-scale plants have the potential to produce multiple outputs include electricity, heat, natural gas transportation fuel, algal fuel utilizing CO2, biofuels from lignin, biomaterials, and fertilizer. Production could be accelerated if cap-and-trade carbon credits are produced.

This potential is part of the reason that Summit attendance is double what was expected and that this became an international summit with delegates from Sweden, UK, Spain, Canada and other countries. We do not need to dispose ever increasing quantities of waste. We do not need bigger landfills. The vision is a zero-waste society where anything no longer used is converted into something valuable, be it recycled paper, building materials, electricity, heat, fuel, etc.

We can achieve energy independence and avoid a climate crisis with a portfolio of solutions leading us to a near zero-emission future. Yes, the Prius, solar power, and eating tofu make a difference. Energy efficient buildings, transportation, and sustainable living make bigger differences. Now, we must put on our boots and roll-up our sleeves and give a whole new meaning to the mantra “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

<!– By John Addison, Jun 24th, 2009. Learn about the future of cars and transportation in John’s new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet.–> By John Addison. John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.