B.C. is leading the way in growing Canada’s biogas-renewable natural gas sector, say industry experts

Mark Lowey
March 30, 2022

The public and private sectors in British Columbia are leading the rest of Canada with policies and investment to support and grow the biogas-renewable natural gas sector, industry experts say.

The Canadian Biogas Association, in a report released last week, recommended expanding the sector so it can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help achieve Canada’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals. B.C. is showing how that can be accomplished, experts told Research Money.

“B.C. has established itself as a progressive jurisdiction when it comes to climate action, and we’ve extended the growth of renewable gas this year in B.C.,” Joe Mazza, vice-president, energy supply and resource development, at utility company FortisBC, said in an interview.

“Progressive policy and underlying regulatory framework are absolutely important to enable future decarbonization,” he said.

B.C. has Canada’s most aggressive renewable natural gas (RNG) mandate. The government requires 15 percent minimum RNG to be in natural gas distribution networks by 2030.

In changes made last year to the province’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regulation, the government also broadened the methods by which utilities can obtain renewable gas, including paying a third party to produce it or upgrade biogas for pipeline injection which displaces fossil fuels.

B.C. is the first province in Canada to make these kinds of changes allowing for the increased production of renewable gas.

Under the province’s policies, FortisBC – which distributes natural gas across North America – is able to offer long-term contracts to suppliers of renewable gas which enables developers to finance and build their projects, Mazza said.

In 2011, FortisBC became the first utility in North America to implement a renewable gas program and offer RNG to its customers so they could reduce their GHG emissions, he said. “We’ve now got about 10,000 residential and commercial customers that are now benefitting from sustainably produced energy.”

The utility tripled its supply of RNG through 2021 and expects to, at minimum, triple its supply again in 2022.

FortisBC’s customers can choose to pay a premium to blend anywhere from five percent to 100 percent RNG into their regular natural gas supply.

The utility’s Clean Growth Innovation Fund supports advances in clean technologies like RNG, carbon and methane capture with $4.9 million per year in funding for four years. FortisBC has pledged to reduce its customers’ GHG emissions by 30 percent, or 3.9 million tonnes, by 2030. More than half of this reduction would be achieved through RNG.

To help achieve this target, FortisBC has an application before the provincial regulator to automatically supply 100-percent renewable gas to all the company’s new residential connections for the lifetime of the homes.

“We’ll be using our existing infrastructure to deliver that gas to meet B.C.’s energy needs and decarbonize our system,” Mazza said.

As for the long-term potential for renewable and low-carbon gas, a report commissioned by the B.C. government, FortisBC and the B.C. Bioenergy Network found there’s enough organic waste and other organic materials to supply about 440 petajoules (PJ) of energy per year in B.C. by 2050. That is more than double the total amount of 200 PJ that now flows through FortisBC’s 50,000-kilometre gas infrastructure system.

The company’s long-term goal is to have about 75 percent of its total gas supply to be renewable or low carbon by 2050, to meet the province’s 80-per-cent GHG-reduction target.

That could be accomplished for $100 million less than by only using electrification to achieve the target, Mazza noted.

Direct link between policy support and sector’s expansion

There is a direct link between expanding the biogas-RNG sector and RNG mandates, policy measures and GHG reduction targets, says Stefan Michalski, director of operations at Lethbridge Biogas.

“If you look in Canada, B.C. is the most aggressive on this front,” he said in an interview.

Unlike B.C., Alberta has no mechanism to support the biogas-RNG sector through competitive pricing with fossil fuel natural gas, Michalski said. “Alberta at this point is not really a market for people that look for an offtake for renewable natural gas.”

Lethbridge Biogas had to rely on $40 million in private investment to build its biogas plant in southern Alberta. Since 2013, the facility has been using biogas generated from livestock manure and other organic waste to generate more than 2.8 megawatts of combined heat and power, including renewable electricity for the Alberta grid.

Last summer, Lethbridge Biogas commissioned a unit to upgrade its biogas to produce renewable natural gas – the first commercial-scale RNG facility in the province.

The RNG is sold under long-term contract to FortisBC, which means the B.C. utility is able to claim the GHG reductions and carbon credits, Michalski said.

Alberta, where agriculture is the second-biggest industry after oil and gas, has enough organic materials to use biogas-RNG to reduce more GHGs than any other province – 16.2 million tonnes by 2050, according to the Canadian Biogas Association’s (CBA) recent report.

“There is enough potential. It just needs the right [policy and regulatory] framework,” Michalski said.

Other provinces making inroads on biogas-RNG

Canada’s biogas sector grew by almost 50 percent from 2011 to 2020, according to the Canadian Biogas Association.

Last year, the Ontario government changed its regulations to enable new on-farm biogas systems and expansion of existing systems to be approved more easily and at a lower cost.

Ontario has 56 percent of all biogas facilities in Canada, mostly on individual farms. (See accompanying story: “Inside a family farm’s biogas system producing enough power for 200 homes”). The province aims to grow its $35-million-a-year biogas sector by up to 50 percent over the next five years.

In Toronto, Enbridge Gas Inc. teamed up with the city on a large-scale RNG project involving several municipal landfills in the Greater Toronto area. RNG production started last year from the Dufferin Organics Processing Facility.

The Quebec government’s 2030 Plan for a Green Economy, released in 2020, included investments totalling $213 million to support the province’s emerging RNG sector.

Federally, Ottawa’s Agricultural Clean Technology Program provides a total of $165.7 million in funding to help farmers and agribusinesses develop and adopt clean technologies, including biogas and RNG.

The invasion of Ukraine has underscored the risk of relying on imported sources of energy, with European countries dependent on Russian oil and gas now scrambling to find alternative sources, Michalski said. “This just shows how important it is to tap into local resources and not make yourself dependent too much on others,” he said.

Growing the biogas-renewable natural gas sector in Canada would not only provide domestically sourced energy, but sustainable green energy, he said.

Critics question claimed benefits for biogas

However, not everyone thinks growing the biogas-RNG sector is a good idea.

Based on the experience with biogas operations in the U.S., the environmental benefits claimed are questionable, says lawyer Danielle Diamond, a fellow in the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

The process of converting organic waste into methane gas results in the same kinds of contaminants that come from burning fossil fuels, she said in an email to Research Money.

“At the end of the day, it [biogas] is not a clean energy solution,” Diamond said. “It’s an attempt to turn a byproduct from a polluting industry into carbon offsets.”

Diamond, the former executive director of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, a national non-profit, and co-authors published a study last year in Environmental Justice that was highly critical of biogas technology, especially when used at large intensive livestock operations, or “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.”

Incentivizing an industry that’s reliant on waste and fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t a viable approach to reducing GHG emissions, Diamond said in her email.

Instead, there should be investments in small livestock farms that transition to diverse, pasture-based systems and adopt practices to improve soil health and biodiversity, she said.

If Canada is truly committed to expanding the biogas sector, pollution monitoring should be required at all biogas facilities, all monitoring data should be made public, and the public should have a meaningful role in local siting and government financing decisions, she said.

More independent research is needed on the pollutants generated by biogas facilities and their environmental and public health impacts on surrounding populations, she added.

“Canada should consider an approach like the state of New York’s, which eliminated biogas projects from its renewable energy platform,” Diamond said.

But Michalski, a board director at the Canadian Biogas Association (CBA), argued that such criticism is unwarranted, especially since small farms or large intensive livestock operations would otherwise spread their manure on fields. “That is more harmful than anything else,” he said. “By adding a biogas facility, you’re just capturing opportunities and providing benefits that otherwise would not be there if you wouldn’t do that.”

Although Canada’s current biogas operations typically are much smaller than those seen with intensive livestock operations in the U.S., according to the CBA, some people are eyeing the potential for larger operations here.

In Alberta, approximately 35 percent of total feedlot capacity of 1.3 million head of cattle is located at just 12 feedlots, each with greater than 20,000 head. “The larger feedlots are attractive locations for [manure] digester projects due to their economies of scale for RNG production,” but would also benefit from improved manure management practices, according to a report by biogas expert Alex Hayes, a senior research engineer at InnoTech Alberta.

Jennifer Green, executive director of the CBA, told Research Money that no matter the size of a biogas or RNG project in Canada, every project must go through a regulatory process that includes environmental protection, consideration of neighbouring properties, and requiring offset distances for development and construction.


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