StMU Research Scholars

The Renewable Natural Gas Revolution

Today’s society is faced with one of the most difficult obstacles mankind has ever had to face. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use are contributing to climate change that threatens the future of humanity and even the Earth itself. In the transportation sector, oil being used for gasoline is one of the most detrimental practices for the environment, but in a world so heavily reliant on gasoline, it is hard for any environmentally friendly alternatives to break through. However, renewable natural gas (RNG) is one of the most promising alternatives for helping society limit its methane emissions and gasoline usage. Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, a company valued at around $US 1.5 billion, is currently pioneering the way for RNG use by major shipping fleets. This company has the chance to both help save the environment and make a profit for themselves and their shareholders.

To understand why RNG is so promising, one must understand what exactly RNG is. RNG is a biogas. Biogas is a gaseous byproduct of decomposing organic matter. Biogas consists mostly of methane and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to climate change.1 Under normal conditions, these biogases will escape into the atmosphere, adding to total greenhouse gas emissions. In producing RNG, however, biogas is captured and turned into either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG), and used as a transportation fuel just like gasoline.2 This means that not only is there a profitable use for this biogas, but the methane and carbon dioxide are not released directly into the atmosphere. It is biogas capture that makes RNG a less carbon-intensive energy source. 3 Another important quality of RNG is that under ideal conditions, it can be viewed as a carbon-negative fuel source. This is because the process of making RNG captures and converts waste biogas (methane and carbon dioxide), and the resulting CNG or LNG is less carbon-intensive than the gasoline it replaces as a transportation fuel.4

Figure 1. Domes like these in Germany are used to capture Biogas released by landfills.5
The two most common places for collecting biogas are above landfills and above livestock operations.2 Companies collecting the released biogas build massive domes over these places to keep the biogas from entering the atmosphere, collecting it to make the RNG (See Figures 1 and 2). In the United States, 27% of methane emissions come from livestock manure and landfills. The transportation industry is also responsible for 28% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. With every RNG collecting dome installed and used, the  United States emissions will be lowered and the more domes that are installed the lower the emissions.3

Figure 2. This image gives a closer look at what happens at a landfill with a methane-capturing dome.8
Now that the use of RNG and its potential benefits are known, this brings up the question of why society must find a more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to gasoline. According to a 2021 United Nations report, methane emissions need to be reduced by 45% before 2030.9 Because landfills and livestock emit so much of the country’s methane, the US should try to control and eliminate as much of it as possible.  A switch to RNG could play a major role in lowering the country’s methane emissions and controlling them. If lowering the emissions is not able to be done, humanity will have to suffer through the many detrimental effects of climate change. Through a complex set of feedback mechanisms, climate change affects animals, humans, and the ecosystem (Figure 3). For example, it can cause global temperatures to rise, which has the potential to modify ecosystems to an extent that puts different species of plants and animals at risk of extinction. A warming climate can also cause sea levels to rise and glaciers to melt, affecting the complex habitats of land and ocean life, causing problems in the food web. Climate change will also hurt human society. For example, the human food supply depends on the climate. Prolonged changes in weather patterns can affect the ability of certain crops to grow and thrive, perhaps forcing humans to change their diets to adapt to new growing conditions. Although switching some shipping fleets from gasoline to RNG will not solve all these issues, it could play a key part in the effort to stop climate change.10

Figure 3. This shows some of the effects of climate change, many of which can be reduced by the use of RNG. It helps illustrate the importance of stopping climate change.11
The biggest supplier of RNG is a company called Clean Energy Fuels. This company currently has a market cap of $US 1.64 billion. The company went public on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 2007, raising $138 million in capital with its initial public offering. After Clean Energy launched its RNG product, it sold 14 million GGEs (Gallons of Gasoline Equivalent) in a year, which was three times what the EPA projected would be produced by the entire industry nationwide. Since then, the company has made deals with large vehicle fleet operators such as Total, UPS, Amazon, and Waste Management, with over 570 fueling stations across North America.12 Over 25,000 vehicles are currently running on Clean Energy Fuel’s RNG, and their sales are up to 143.8 million GGEs in the first 3 quarters of 2022, with estimates of more that 19o million GGEs this year.  This means there has been an increase in sales by over 1300% since the company went public in 2007.13 Although this may not sound impressive considering that although the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the United States consumes almost 135 billion gallons of gasoline each year, any progress to cut greenhouse gas emissions should be credited.14  Another factor that should be recognized is the rapid growth in RNG usage. Many large shipping companies have decided to use RNG, and Clean Energy is working to get more companies to start. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow climate change, and limit gasoline usage, many different substitutes must be used.  Clean Energy RNG is just a part of the effort in address the issue of climate change.

The company says, “Addressing climate change and reducing carbon has never been more urgent”. Their solution is by getting large trucking fleets to switch from gasoline to RNG.15 As discussed previously, RNG is mainly collected from landfills and livestock farms.  The company pays livestock operations and landfill owners for the rights to build RNG-capturing domes above their land, providing them with a source of passive income. This is a unique business plan – for there to be RNG, there must be methane being released into the air and, as stated earlier, landfills and livestock operations account for a large portion of methane released into the atmosphere. Landfill and livestock owners are able to use the same practices and release the same amounts of methane, but because the gases are collected, they receive a payment for what would otherwise be waste. Clean Energy Fuels uses this biogas as their fuel product, and the company is able to make a profit on the RNG being sold. In this case, society gets the benefit from enjoying livestock products, the landfill and livestock owners benefit from the passive income, the company benefits from having a larger supply of RNG to sell to consumers, and total greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.16

This way of combating climate change differs from other methods in that it requires almost no change from the average consumer. In contrast, many other approaches often require significant lifestyle changes. For example, a common way of trying to combat climate change in today’s era is by going vegan.17 To make any real progress with climate change many people would have to go vegan in order to cause a large enough reduction in meat consumption to produce significant effects on greenhouse gas emissions. It is not enough for the individual to just not eat meat, they would also not be able to use any product that livestock is used to produce. An alternative to what might be a difficult lifestyle change would be the use of RNG. While RNG use would not compensate for all of the potential climate change effects associated with livestock production, such as deforestation, the process does eliminate or offset many of the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change threatens humanity as a whole, and it needs to be addressed immediately. As a potentially carbon-negative energy source and is the cleaner alternative to gasoline, RNG offers at least a partial solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. RNG use can minimize methane released by landfills and livestock production which is responsible for much of the United States greenhouse gas emissions. Clean Energy Fuels is the largest supplier of RNG in the world. They have pioneered a way for large-scale RNG production, and they continue to try to make the trucking industry less carbon-intensive, and therefore more sustainable. As the company says, “RNG is a proven solution that works”.

  1. “What Is Biogas?” National Grid Group. Accessed October 31, 2022. https://www.nationalgrid.com/stories/energy-explained/what-is-biogas.
  2. U.S. Department of Energy. “Renewable Natural Gas Production.” Alternative Fuels Data Center: Renewable Natural Gas Production. Accessed September 5, 2022. https://afdc.energy.gov/fuels/natural_gas_renewable.html.
  3. “How Sustainability Goals Become Reality.” Clean Energy Fuels, June 14, 2021. https://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/#why-rng
  4. “What Is Renewable Natural Gas?: Socalgas.” SoCalGas, A Sempra Energy utility. Accessed November 13, 2022. https://www.socalgas.com/sustainability/renewable-gas/what-is-renewable-natural-gas.
  5. Vasyatka1 “File:Gasag Biogas Plant in Schwedt (053).JPG – Wikimedia Commons,” March 30, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:GASAG_Biogas_plant_in_Schwedt_(065).jp g
  6. U.S. Department of Energy. “Renewable Natural Gas Production.” Alternative Fuels Data Center: Renewable Natural Gas Production. Accessed September 5, 2022. https://afdc.energy.gov/fuels/natural_gas_renewable.html.
  7. “How Sustainability Goals Become Reality.” Clean Energy Fuels, June 14, 2021. https://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/#why-rng
  8. Tkarcher. “File:Biogas Plant.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, March 8, 2017. https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Biogas_plant.svg.
  9. “Renewable Natural Gas and the Need for Clean Domestic Energy Biomassmagazine.” Biomassmagazine.com. Accessed October 31, 2022. https://biomassmagazine.com/articles/19174/renewable-natural-gas-and-the-need-for-clean-domestic-energy.
  10. “Climate Change Impacts.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed October 31, 2022. https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/climate/climate-change-impacts.
  11. RCraig09 “File:20200118 Global Warming and Climate Change – Vertical Block Diagram – Causes Effects Feedback.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, January 18, 2020. https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:20200118_Global_warming_and_climate_ch ange_-_vertical_block_diagram_- _causes_effects_feedback.svg.
  12. “History.” Clean Energy Fuels, July 7, 2022. https://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/about-us/history.
  13. “Clean Energy Reports Revenue of $125.7 Million and 54.1 Million RNG Gallons Sold for the Third Quarter of 2022.” Business Wire, November 8, 2022. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20221107006190/en/Clean-Energy-Reports-Revenue-of-125.7-Million-and-54.1-Million-RNG-Gallons-Sold-for-the-Third-Quarter-of-2022.
  14. “Gasoline explained: Use of Gasoline” Energy Information Administration. June 9, 2022. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/gasoline/use-of-gasoline.php.
  15. “Our Sustainable Vision.” Clean Energy Fuels, June 4, 2021. https://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/our-sustainable-vision.
  16. “How RNG Is Made.” Clean Energy Fuels, July 8, 2021. https://www.cleanenergyfuels.com/how-rng-is-made.
  17. “Could Going Vegan Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” Stanford Earth. Accessed November 10, 2022. https://earth.stanford.edu/news/could-going-vegan-help-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

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5 Responses

  1. Congratulations on your article and on your nomination. I do agree that climate change displays a really important and difficult problem to fix in our society especially since we’re so used to having it around and just living with it. I also really like that you provided solutions to this problem by mentioning renewable natural gas I think that it’s a great idea to start implementing it in our everyday lives when given the opportunity.

  2. What a great detailed article ! Congratulations on your nomination. I enjoyed reading you article because it was super organized and and talked about our futre with price statistics with renewable and natural gas companies. Overall this was a great and very interesting article. Again, congratulations best of luck 🙂

  3. Congratulations on your nomination! I would have to agree… climate change is detrimental to us and is hurting our planet. I liked the way you presented RNG as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how you explained why RNG is the best solution to this problem. I also enjoyed the images you provided, especially figure two. Overall, great job!

  4. Because it felt so pertinent, this essay was really detailed and I enjoyed reading it. I liked that you chose a subject that directly impacts the state of the earth today and the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. The decision to provide all price data to the renewable natural gas provider was wise. I also enjoyed how it had a bit of a persuasive piece feel to it. You began by identifying an important issue that people should be aware of and outlining potential solutions.

  5. This article was a very detailed article that I enjoyed reading because of how relevant it felt. I enjoyed that you chose a topic that directly relates to the current state of the planet and the effects that are taking place because of greenhouse gas emissions. It was a great idea to include all the price statistics with the renewable natural gas company. I also liked how it almost felt like a persuasive article. You started with a significant problem that people should be aware of, and how that problem could potentially be fixed/reduced.

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