Canadian governments and industry are reviving the oldest fuel — wood — for a natural gas substitute billed as contributing to commitments to make the country a moral leader in arresting global climate change.
New-age environmental language drops the old four-letter word. Enter “lignocellulosic biomass,” formerly known as wood waste, as the raw material for a pilot project meant to drive a national wave of conversion to RNG, short for renewable natural gas.
Natural Resources Canada, Enbridge Gas Distribution, FortisBC, Gaz Metro, Union Gas, ATCO, Natural Gas Innovation Fund, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations are giving G4 Insights Inc. C$2.15 million ($1.6 million) to build the test site in Edmonton. Alberta Innovates is a provincial government research agency and FPInnovations is a national forest products industry-supported nonprofit society.
G4, a technology firm in the Vancouver satellite of Burnaby, previously qualified for a US$2.5 million demonstration project sanctioned by the California Energy Commission. The test turned wood waste into a compressed natural gas (CNG) motor vehicle fuel.
RNG figures in a complex scheme, titled the Greenest City Action Plan, to cut Vancouver greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. A stringent building code, cutting fossil fuel consumption and requiring energy efficiency measures in new structures, took effect Monday.
While British Columbia’s biggest city is renowned for environmental enthusiasm, interest in RNG has spread to Ontario and Quebec. Forest product industries in the West Coast and Central Canadian provinces are rated as capable of high volumes of the natural gas substitute.
A study by the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) estimates that RNG production could hit 1.2 Tcf/year — nearly half of the nation’s 2.7 Tcf gas consumption — by using forestry sector waste wood as well as other biomethane sources such as landfill sites.
CGA reported its gas utility members are working on steps to grow RNG into 10% of the fuel in its pipeline networks by 2030. At the current Canadian consumption level, the green gas supply would work out to about 730 MMcf/d.
At the end of 2016 the distribution utilities had 11 RNG projects underway, estimated to be capable of replacing the fossil fuel version of natural gas in 51,000 homes or substituting for 132 million liters (34.3 million U.S. gallons) of gasoline in motor vehicles.
While describing the early trials of RNG as “cost effective,” the CGA added that wood waste-derived gas and other substitutes remain more expensive than the fossil version from geological deposits.
“RNG can be produced, cleaned and put into the natural gas distribution system,” at a cost of C$10-25/gigajoule (GJ) ($7.88-19.69/MMBtu), the CGA study said. Fossil gas from Alberta and BC currently fetches C$2.70/GJ ($2.13/MMBtu) and delivery to central Canadian utilities costs C$1-2 (75 cents-$1.50) in pipeline tolls.
In Burnaby, G4 Insights’ promotional literature hinted at the scale of transportation and processing that would be required to produce RNG in high volume.
“The small commercial plant size is 400 GJ/d (380 MMBtu/d) output of methane,” said the technology firm, which maintains its method is highly efficient by RNG standards. “This plant requires about two logging trucks worth of wood per day, and is well suited to small forest operations in suburban sites and remote communities and islands. The large commercial plant will produce 10,000 GJ/d (9,500 MMBtu) and is suited to locations near commercial forestry operations.”
The CGA study concluded that Canada needs counterparts to green energy assistance policies in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard and allied programs of 35 U.S. state governments.
“Investment tax credits for RNG projects, direct program support to offset higher RNG costs and the introduction of gas utility renewable portfolio standard programs for RNG are three possible measures.” To put momentum into green gas initiatives the CGA has also requested C$50 million ($37.5 million) from the federal government’s Canadian Green Infrastructure Fund.