Renewable natural gas? Yes, it’s a thing, and now Philly residents can get it

As of this month, Philadelphians can choose a cleaner option for heating their homes and cooking: natural gas produced in landfills, known as biogas. (The Energy Co-op)

As of this month, Philadelphians can choose a cleaner option for heating their homes and cooking: natural gas produced in landfills, known as biogas. (The Energy Co-op)

Philadelphia residents have long enjoyed a number of different options when it comes to choosing who supplies the natural gas that runs through the Philadelphia Gas Works pipelines into every house in the city.

Certain suppliers promised better prices, while others promoted better services.

But none in Philadelphia offered anything other than traditional fossil-based natural gas. Until now.

As of this month, Philadelphians can choose a cleaner option: gas produced in landfills, known as biogas.

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“By using renewable natural gas to heat your home, or to cook in your home, you’re reducing the amount of drilling and fracking that’s required to supply natural gas,” said Ronald Fisher, director of the Energy Co-op, the nonprofit cooperative now supplying biogas to PGW.

Started by members of the Weavers Way food co-op, the Energy Co-op has supplied the Philadelphia region with renewable electricity for 20 years. In 2010, it began providing renewable natural gas to PECO customers living outside the city. After another pilot expansion last year, it decided to make the jump to offer its biogas to all PGW customers across the city.

A new energy source

Biogas is methane captured from the decomposition of organic matter in waste plants or anaerobic digesters and processed to be used in place of fossil-based natural gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Though it is not renewable in the same way as solar or wind energy, biogas is referred to as renewable natural gas.

“Renewable may be a question mark in terms of the semantics of that term, but it is an energy source that currently goes to waste and only contributes negatively to carbon [emissions],” said Christine Knapp, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. “If you’re looking for something that’s not, sort of, investing in natural gas infrastructure, this RNG option is something that fills a gap that we currently don’t have.”

Switching to this kind of gas doesn’t require changing appliances or building new pipes into people’s homes. Technically, residents who opt for it will receive the same natural gas that everyone gets through pipelines in the city. But by buying renewable natural gas, customers are reducing the total amount of fossil fuel pumped through U.S. pipelines.

Oscar Serpell, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, said that even though customers are not directly using the biogas, by paying someone to produce it, the end effect is the same.

“If you purchase through this program a number of cubic feet or renewable natural gas equal to your consumption of natural gas, you’re canceling out your emissions by reducing emissions elsewhere,” Serpell explained.

But not all biogas is carbon neutral, he said. Expanding the production of organic matter, such as grass or food, could increase the amount of carbon in the mix.

“Provided that you’re getting the renewable natural gas from waste that’s already produced, it is a very good way of producing carbon-free heat,” said Serpell, who has been exploring ways to decarbonize PGW, responsible for one-fifth of the city’s carbon emissions.

The Energy Co-op supports biogas coming from landfills as a way to incentivize waste plants to capture their methane emissions, Fisher said.

One place where customers switching to renewable natural gas will feel the change? Their pockets. The cost of renewable natural gas is, on average, about $15 more per month than conventional natural gas. That’s about 50 cents more a day.

“It’s a small price to pay for a sustainable energy future and a cleaner, safer Pennsylvania,” Fisher said.

Customers in the PGW service area can switch their gas supplier at the natural gas shopping website of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

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