Not too far from your home, rolling hills of garbage are piling up in giant heaps. Waste that is collected from our homes, streets and workplaces continues to build as large trucks deliver more and more each day. White seagulls and colourful plastic bags fly through the air. Apart from the giant machines, they seem to be the only visible life here.
But what is not visible is the methane gas emanating from the large landfill and rapidly making its way up into the atmosphere. Methane is thirty times more effective at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2). Global methane concentrations rose ten times higher in 2014 and 2015 than in any year before.
Our heaps of garbage are not the only major source of methane gas; so is livestock manure and human organic waste. Even alcohol brewers produce methane. These sources account for almost 55 percent of all global methane.
For the past thirty years, one company has been making its way around the world, addressing this urgent issue. Greenlane Biogas has been delivering tools to businesses and governments to capture methane to sell on the market as fuel.
Renewable natural gas (RNG) is the only natural gas used in large quantities that does not add new carbon to our atmosphere. It is produced from a variety of organic sources that can be injected into existing pipelines or vehicles.
“We are a leading global technology provider of biogas upgrading systems that produce clean, renewable natural gas,” says Greenlane Biogas President and Chief Executive Officer Brad Douville.
The company has installed over one hundred biogas upgrading units in eighteen countries and is bringing its vast global experience to the Americas. Newly headquartered in British Colombia, Canada, it has recently gone on the TSX (GRN).
“We’ve sold in eighteen countries. Eleven of those we were the first to deploy an upgrader system into, so we’ve been a real pioneer in the space.” The first systems were delivered in the early nineties in France and quickly spread throughout Western Europe. In recent years, Greenlane has picked up large customers in Canada, the U.S., Brazil, China, and Japan.
The company’s goal is to shift the gas and transportation industries towards a carbon-neutral future. It boasts the two largest biogas facilities in the world: a landfill upgrader in Montreal, Canada and an agricultural upgrader in Germany. The global natural gas grid is larger than the electricity grid. It is 1.25 times larger in the U.S., two times higher in Canada, and four times higher in the U.K.
“Methane, which comes from a fully renewable resource, can be injected back into the natural gas grid,” explains Douville. “Renewable natural gas is sold as a premium over fossil fuel natural gas because it adds no new net carbon into the environment.”
Douville joined Greenlane in 2018, after spending years developing engines for the natural gas industry. “I moved over because of the focus on RNG to make a truly sustainable and truly compelling transportation solution,” he says. “There hasn’t really been an RNG market that’s well-understood and well known. I’d say we’re still at the front end of a journey here.”
For the past five years, the US has had a renewable fuel standard that requires that RNG be mixed into the transportation fuel. Biofuels are also market traded.
In just the past six months, RNG has seen a significant rise in political and commercial support. Now is a great time for industries that are already producing methane to get on board. Gas utilities like Fortis BC and Energir in Quebec are paying almost ten times the fossil natural gas commodity rate for RNG.
Greenlane is the only company in North America that provides three upgrading technologies, depending on customers’ needs and budget. The three technologies are water wash, pressure swing adsorption, and membrane separation.
“When a customer comes to us, we first evaluate the project and determine what technology is best suited based on capital expenses and operating expenses for the customer,” Vice President of Sales and Technology Brent Jaklin explains. “Having the three leading technologies enables us to take a unique approach to any project.”
Water wash is the most common method used by medium, large, and ultra-large projects. It is best suited for feedstock, food manufacturing, distilleries, food waste processors, and wastewater treatment. Gasses from these sources are fed into an upgrader. Under the correct pressure settings, the water will absorb all of the gasses except methane. The trapped methane is recovered at rates as high as 99 percent and uses no chemicals in the process.
Pressure swing adsorption (PSA) is best suited for separating multiple gasses in complex feedstocks like landfills. After feedstock is desulfurized, the gasses are exposed to different pressures, which cause them to be adsorbed by different solids. This process easily separates and traps oxygen, nitrogen, and can even recover CO2 as a byproduct.
PSA is often combined with water wash systems to create the highest grade RNG possible. “We have an installation operating in California that utilizes a water wash and a PSA technology in series to recover the highest level of RNG to meet the tight pipeline specification for injection into the SoCal pipeline,” says Jaklin. SoCalGas in Southern California is the largest gas utility in North America. It recently announced in March a target of five percent RNG in its pipelines by 2022 and twenty percent by 2030.
Finally, membrane separation is used for projects where upfront costs are a big issue or on small to medium-sized projects. Using straw-like fibers to separate CO2 from methane, it delivers better than 99 percent pure methane.
So how can customers get their hands on the company’s technology? After a discussion with Greenlane over the best technology to use, customers contact a natural gas supplier that will agree to plug a future facility into an existing pipeline.
“This is a multi-year development project for us and our customers, from first contact to when they’ve got their project built,” explains Jaklin. “This is something that we work on side-by-side with customers to provide the best solution and then support them throughout the years of operation to maximize their facility.”
Customers working with gas utilities that are familiar with RNG and have processes in place, such as contract templates can be operational within twelve to eighteen months. However, customers that plan to work with gas companies which are not familiar with RNG generally take an extra six to twelve months. Luckily, Greenlane has extensive experience in new markets, working with utilities that are upgrading to RNG for the first time.
“We also offer an ongoing service contract for customers who want some ongoing support, including around-the-clock remote monitoring, where we can make adjustments to the upgraders. That gives the clients a bit of comfort that they’ve got the expertise of Greenlane supporting their installation,” says Jaklin.
Typically, the upfront investment is paid back within four to eight years. In the United States, RNG is a tradable commodity, so the demand is continually increasing.
Incentives to move to RNG are popping up around the western world. “The Paris Accord was certainly an influencing factor,” says Douville, “and it’s accelerated more within the last three to six months. We’re seeing more and more announcements by gas utilities or countries to drive renewable content into their natural gas networks.”
“Here in British Columbia, there was regulation put in place to allow the gas utility to go up to five percent of RNG in the grid. The provincial government announced in December a target of fifteen percent in the grid by 2030.”
Quebec announced a target of one percent by 2020 and five percent by 2025. France requires ten percent of its network to be renewable by 2030. The largest gas company in France, ENGIE, has put $800 million together into a fund for RNG projects over the next five years.
“These are things we are seeing now,” says Douville, “and that’s going to be a reflection on this business and more broadly in the space.”
Jaklin is optimistic about a future where RNG is as commonplace as wind or solar. “What we’re finding is that gas utilities are becoming more willing because they’re being mandated to have certain percentage of renewables in their pipelines or they’re recognizing that they need to switch to that in order to remain relevant.”
“I think one other thing to realize is what we’re doing is the exact opposite of fracking and all the other methods for getting natural gas,” continues Jaklin. “What we’re doing is we’re taking a source that is a contaminant to the environment. We’re trapping that and providing that as energy.”
“Cities have to deal with this waste. Upgraders are an effective method to actually deal with the waste,” Douville agrees.
Landfills, wastewater facilities, and livestock demands are growing around the world. The waste we produce can be rerouted back into our energy systems without emitting new carbon into the atmosphere. If your government or company produces this waste, Greenlane Biogas can be part of an exciting and sustainable future.