RNG Takes Center Stage In EU’s Decarbonization Plan

    EU Targets RNG For Near-Term Climate Impact, Long-Term Renewable Gas System

    RNG Landfill Development Project In Springfield, Nebraska (Image Courtesy Of US Grain)

    This article was written by Sam Lehr.

    The European Union (EU) and its member states have consistently been ahead of North America in the realm of sustainable development. Often recognized for their historic leadership in building renewable power and the widespread adoption of easy-to-use public transit, certain member states have now begun to develop policy focused on higher-order environmental concepts such as a circularized economy.

    The most recent development to the framework underpinning the EU’s march toward deep decarbonization is the REPower EU Plan, which was proposed by the European Commission in 2022 to simultaneously reduce emissions and end dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Included within the plan are many commonly recognized key strategies — including increasing renewable power and end-use electrification.

    However, there is another key tool in the EU’s decarbonization plan that has gone largely unnoticed by US-centric climate stakeholders. The EU has committed to replacing about 20%, or 123 Tscf (35× 109 m3), of lost Russian gas supply with renewable natural gas (RNG) by 2030, pole-vaulting an RNG supply buildout to the top of the region’s energy policy. After all, RNG presents a plentiful, drop-in solution to begin decarbonization of the gas system. According to the European Biogas Association, the EU’s 2050 RNG potential is around 590 Tscf (167 × 109 m3). This would cover 40% of EU gas consumption as of 2021 and could eventually rise to 61% in 2050 based on decreased gas use.

    Getting There

    The overarching perspective based on conversations with the EU and broader international officials is that biogas, RNG, and hydrogen will play a growing role in the energy sector and as platform molecules for other fuels and products. The focus on both RNG and renewable hydrogen in tandem with electrification efforts showcases energy policy experts’ belief that both renewable gases and renewable electricity are needed as a part of any long-term decarbonization strategy. Unsurprisingly, this aligns with what leading climate jurisdictions like California (in documents put forth by the Air Resources Board, Energy Commission, and Public Utilities Commission) have provided in their visions for the future.

    A few member states offer something of a roadmap for how the EU might approach its 123 Tscf by 2030 target for biomethane, while simultaneously advancing other modes of renewable energy. Denmark’s combined approach to electrification and renewable gas is perhaps the most comprehensive put forth by any jurisdiction and is viewed as a key part of the country’s organic waste management strategy. Denmark’s share of RNG in its gas system is now at 37.9% with plans to reach 100% in the early 2030’s. Notably, The Danish Green Gas Strategy plans for high electrification and significant decommissioning of the gas system, including for most building heating, by 2040. This coincides with a ramp up in biomethane supply until the gas system is 100% renewable, as well as the transition of other parts of the system to transport green hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). These fuels play a more limited, but important role compared to today, with a focus on industry.

    Of course, Denmark can’t do it alone — all EU member states will need to ramp up biomethane supply to meet these goals, which will require a combination of policies. There are some proven policy tools Europe can use to get where it wants to go, although innovation and wider adoption will prove vital.

    Europe has long been a pioneer in the use of both feed-in tariffs and market-based instruments for renewable gas procurement — the latter being a proven method of incenting supply by connecting end-users with sources at separate points within the same gas system. However, part of achieving this goal will rely on the European Commission setting up an effective new tracking database, as directed by RED II regulations.

    Pursuant to this new policy, each EU Member State had to submit an updated 10-year National Energy and Climate Plan by June 30, which included their contribution to this biomethane target. Spain, for example, which has a much larger energy footprint than Denmark, plans to cover 10% to 13% of its gas demand with biomethane in 2030. Another aspect of achieving this ramp-up involves increasing biomethane production in less developed countries. This concept is currently under study via Horizon Europe’s GreenMeUp project, headed by the Greek Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving, which will determine the policy support needed to bridge the gap between the EU’s more developed biomethane players.

    Make no mistake: this EU-wide embrace of RNG is substantiated by international climate policy experts from organizations like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) who respectively analyze and promote the use of various types of bioenergy, including RNG. As a partnership of the world’s key economies, the CEM’s Biofuture Platform seeks to promote a low-carbon bioeconomy, including the scientific concepts which substantiate the circular use of biogenic carbon at the scale at which we will need replacements for all fossil-derived hydrocarbons, including both products and applications which are not possible to serve or not well-served by electricity.

    The US View

    It is not just the EU that should increase methane capture and utilization to meet global decarbonization goals, as the IEA projects that global RNG supply must increase seven times from 2021 levels in its recent Net Zero by 2050 report. Comparatively, current US modeling shows that, from anaerobic digestion feedstocks alone, RNG could displace 9% to 26% of combined residential, commercial, and industrial demand currently supplied by geologic natural gas in the United States, and that most of that RNG could be in production by 2030. Existing renewable gas, clean heat, and clean fuel standard programs at the US state level are expected to continue to drive RNG development and procurement, as are new tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act and the US EPA’s long-standing Renewable Fuel Standard program. However, much more collaboration is needed for the US RNG industry to live up to the promise of Europe’s decarbonization strategy, and to achieve the levels projected by IEA.

    This collaboration will likely require extensive education and advocacy, with some opponents happy to engage in mythmaking around established methods of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, while leaders in the EU view the use of market-based instruments as a proven method of incenting necessary climate solutions, some US organizations have lobbied against the use of market-based instruments for renewable gas in a manner that runs contrast to reaching our GHG reduction targets as expediently as possible.

    Looking again to the EU as an example, it’s time for US policymakers to recognize the role of renewable gases in achieving deep decarbonization, and to develop broader policies to support production of renewable gas derived from organic waste feedstocks which can achieve compound benefits through the displacement of anthropogenic CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the critical near-term GHG impact of methane capture and destruction, and additional air and water benefits that result from the improved management of organic waste.

    About The Author

    Sam Lehr is the manager of sustainability and markets policy for The Coalition For Renewable Natural Gas. He previously worked on renewable fuels policy and compliance at Montauk Energy, a founding member of RNG Coalition and one of the leading RNG producers in the United States. His experience also includes time with solar energy and green tech start-ups in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lehr holds a BS in Environmental Science and MS in Environmental Science and Management from Duquesne University.