Yes, we have lots of natural gas right now. Yes, the prices are low. Yes, natural gas is cleaner than just about any other fossil fuel. That’s all good news.
Sadly, much of that natural gas is obtained by fracking, a drilling method that has many environmental agencies concerned. And fracking wells do not last long. That means that many more wells will be needed and the prices will invariably go up because of the costs of drilling ever deeper. This stuff does not come gushing out of the ground by itself the way those first Pennsylvania oil wells once did. And the low gas prices are dampening investment in renewables, which is, of course, exactly what the fossil fuel companies want.
Today’s natural gas story turns out to be a good one, for the most part. Here comes another player in from left field. As you may know, methane gas is being captured from many landfills around the country and burned to produce electricity. This is actually a good thing, because, according to EPA, methane is 21 times more potent that CO2 as a greenhouse gas. But when you burn the methane, it is converted to CO2 and water.
Now a company in California, called Clean Energy Fuels is taking landfill methane, and making it available for natural gas powered vehicles through a network of 35 filling stations across California.
The new fuel will be called Redeem and according to the press release, it is 90 percent cleaner than diesel, and 100 percent renewable. The company’s goal is to produce 15 million gallons in its first year.
This is good in two ways. First, natural gas powered cars, like the Honda Civic burn cleaner than their gasoline powered equivalents. Studies have shown that natural gas cars on average have 79- 89 percent of the carbon footprint of gasoline cars, depending on how the gas is obtained. Getting the natural gas from landfills, where, if it wasn’t collected, it would simply float off into the atmosphere is a far greener and cleaner way to get it than from underground gas deposits.
As Sarah Laskow said in Grist, “beats fracking!”
Redeem is cheaper than diesel fuel, and will be less subject to the kinds of geopolitical price shocks that oil-based fuels often see.
There are currently 130,000 natural gas cars in the U.S., far fewer than there are in Europe.
Will the availability of this landfill-derived fuel change that, encouraging more people to buy natural gas cars, some of which could end up being sourced from fracking or LNG-derived fuel?
Perhaps, but I don’t see that as a major concern. It’s a lesser of two evils scenario, but given all the alternatives available today, I don’t see natural gas powered cars becoming more than a niche market. Nor would I try and talk someone out of buying a natural gas car. This is a relatively clean option, far better than what the vast majority of cars being driven today.
It is not, however, carbon-free, as electric vehicles can be, if their batteries are charged with wind or solar or other carbon free sources. Calling it 100 percent renewable is a bit tricky, too. It’s fair enough to say so today, given the near-endless amount of high-energy, high-nutrient-value materials going into landfills these days. But that could change.
If you look at what companies likes Epiphergy are doing, diverting food wastes from landfills and converting 100 percent of them into animal feed, ethanol and compost, you can see that the supply of landfill methane might not necessarily be endless. Though surely, there is enough out there to last for quite a while.
Image courtesy of Clean Energy Fuels.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.
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