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OpEd: Renewable Natural Gas Is Good Environmental and Economic Policy For NY


The time for talk is over. It’s time to take real action on climate change.

To its credit, New York is doing its part, establishing some of the country’s most aggressive emissions reduction goals. But, as New York’s Climate Action Council works to create policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is critical that state leaders use every tool available to them now, including renewable natural gas (RNG), to fully transition to a decarbonized economy by 2050.

RNG is clean energy that is created by capturing methane emissions from waste – emissions that would otherwise seep into the atmosphere – and harnessing them to create energy that can be used in place of conventional natural gas.

Unfortunately, there has recently been push-back against the use of RNG in New York, but critics of RNG don’t acknowledge that RNG reduces the staggering emissions from sources of waste, both in New York and throughout the country, and simultaneously mitigates climate change. While RNG isn’t the only tool that should be employed to fight climate change, it is an essential piece of the puzzle as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Long Island alone creates between 2.4 million and 4 million tons of waste per year – and while communities are increasingly conscious about the need to recycle and reuse, waste will always be a consistent product of communities and human activity. And where there is waste, there are methane emissions.

Methane is one of the more powerful greenhouse gases – having 84 times more of an impact than carbon dioxide in a 20-year period. If left unattended, landfills and other sources of waste, result in major methane emissions that have significant, negative impacts on the climate.

Green technologies and sources of energy like solar and wind are important in the fight against climate change, but they don’t help solve our waste problem – while RNG does. RNG takes methane emissions from waste and breaks them down before they can reach the atmosphere, creating clean energy in the process, and can be applied to industrial uses that are difficult to decarbonize or electrify.

Even when green energy production from wind and solar is at full capacity throughout the world, these sources of waste will still exist. Are we going to stop disposing of excess food? Stop creating wastewater and sewage? Stop ranching and all agriculture work? RNG will continue to be an invaluable tool in lessening or negating emissions from these sources that, whether we like it or not, contribute to methane emissions.

A common misunderstanding of RNG also stems from the fact that it shares infrastructure with natural gas, which some misinterpret to mean it contributes to the fossil fuel industry. In actuality, RNG’s use of existing infrastructure is what makes RNG one of the most accessible and useable sources of clean energy for New York.

Taxpayers have paid billions for gas infrastructure to be created throughout the country, and by using clean energy like RNG or Hydrogen, these existing systems can be a key piece of the clean energy transition. In fact, the International Energy Agency’s recent report on reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 cites the existing infrastructure as one of the major benefits of ramping up biofuel and bioenergy use as a crucial piece of the work to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.

While RNG should not be used to justify the further development of gas lines, it is foolish and shortsighted to ignore the practicality of leveraging existing infrastructure to distribute clean energy to homes and businesses.

Expensive upgrades to existing buildings and vehicles, while attainable, take time and serious investment, while RNG can be plugged into current infrastructure to create an immediate impact and to get full use out of the infrastructure that taxpayers paid for.

In the Long Island community, RNG could empower locals to transition to a cleaner form of energy right away – without overhauling their home or business’s energy systems.

To reach New York’s goals in emissions reduction and renewable energy creation, we need to utilize all of our options and take immediate, concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RNG will be a game changer for the state by addressing the environmental impacts of waste and seamlessly plugging into the state’s current infrastructure. State leaders need to make RNG part of its climate action plan and not squander an opportunity to help dramatically transform our energy system in our fight against climate change.

Devinder Mahajan is a professor and director of the Institute of Gas Innovation and Technology at Stony Brook University. Marjaneh Issapour is a professor and director of the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Center at Farmingdale State College.