Opinion: Renewable natural gas (RNG) seems like a tidy solution

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Climate change deniers, antivaxxers, that whole crowd of people who deny science and distrust intellectuals in general are, well, kinda nuts. We’re suddenly in a world where “inconvenient truths” are labeled “fake news” and thus dismissed. It’s stupid, indeed insufferable.

One of my daughters, the night before I’m writing this in mid-June, had to be pulled by her friend from a party for fear of an argument turning into fisticuffs. Literally. She was arguing with a 60-something woman who claimed, among other truly bizarre notions, that climate change is in fact a fraud perpetrated by Muslims aiming to disrupt western democracies. I kid you not. Didn’t know we had bonafide crackers in Toronto, did ya? Maybe you did, and maybe I shouldn’t be so naïve.

People like that woman can vote, sad to say, and worse yet, they reproduce. So I fear for my girls’ futures, and especially for my new granddaughter. What sort of world will they be living in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now? I don’t think it’s a pretty picture.

All of which is a rather emotional preface to chatting about renewable fuels to make our trucks roll down our highways without contributing emissions that do us harm. I believe that we need to double our efforts to get off the diesel train as soon as we can. I believe that climate change is real, and dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong. I love diesel, even love the smell, and I expect it will power most of our longhaul trucks – and a lot of short-haulers, too – for quite a while to come. It is, after all, a mighty efficient fuel, and it’s almost infinitely cleaner now than it was just 10 years ago. But it’s still a fossil fuel. And don’t forget that we have to import most of it, despite our own reserves.

For a while it was thought that natural gas was something of a savior, being plentiful and relatively cheap. But it’s a fossil fuel as well, and doesn’t pack as much energy punch as the equivalent amount of diesel. Infrastructure is an issue, but not an impossible one. I believe there’s some doubt about its cold-weather performance, plus the extraction process gets no love, and probably shouldn’t. Not surprisingly, natural gas truck sales have trailed off in the last couple of years.

What could revive them is renewable natural gas, RNG for short. Also known as biomethane, it differs from traditional sources of natural gas because it’s derived from renewable sources such as decomposing organic waste in landfills, wastewater treatment, and agriculture. It’s then distributed through the natural gas pipeline and made available as either liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.

The RNG is completely interchangeable with conventional natural gas. It’s a sustainable, drop-in fuel that can replace, or blend with, natural gas.

Think about that. An environmentally supportable fuel that can be home-grown at your local landfill. It can even be a circular solution, as it is for some refuse haulers. Republic Waste has several operations in which material brought to a landfill is processed as methane to fuel the very trucks doing the carriage. Neat and very tidy.

The RNG production in North America more than doubled between 2015 and 2018, and that growth is now being helped by United Parcel Service. The giant courier outfit just dramatically increased its commitment to RNG by contracting with Clean Energy Fuels for 170 million diesel-gallon equivalents (DGEs) of Redeem RNG through 2026. It’s the largest such deal ever.

This woudn’t work for everyone, but until we see batteries or fuel cells that can affordably power our longhaul machinery – and that’s not going to be soon – RNG strikes me as the most useful alternative to diesel out there.

Let the deniers think what they may.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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