Baltimore Gas and Electric Company gained approval to use biogas — gas derived from organic sources such as food waste and lawn clippings — in its distribution system, making it the first utility to do so in the state.
The Maryland Public Service Commission approved BGE’s request in late August to supply biogas or “renewable natural gas” (RNG) to its distribution system through an interconnection pipe.
“This first RNG project in Maryland [will] jump-start a new industry in Maryland, contributing to economic growth, managing waste streams, and bringing a cleaner, renewable energy source to our community,” BGE’s senior vice president of governmental and external affairs Rodney Oddoye said in a statement.
The biogas will come from the state’s largest anaerobic digester located on the Maryland Food Center Authority campus in Jessup, one of the largest food terminals on the East Coast. It is operated by Bioenergy Devco, a global company that designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion facilities, with 240 plants across the world. Bioenergy Devco expects to start fully operating in Jessup by early spring of 2022.
Large food distributors in Maryland usually send their food waste to landfills, where microorganisms in the waste break down organic material and produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that can warm the planet 86 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Methane also contributes to ground-level ozone, which can lead to asthma and other health problems if inhaled.
While anaerobic digesters recreate what happens in a landfill, they do so more efficiently and in an enclosed space. The methane produced from anaerobic digesters can be stored, cleaned and sold to utility and gas companies.
Specifically, Bioenergy Devco’s two three-story tall cylinder machines will grind food and other organic waste in a “slurry,” which then goes through a heated, airtight tank called a digester. What comes out is a mix of water, solids and biogas (mostly methane and carbon dioxide), which can be used as energy to fuel cars or be converted to electricity and heat.
But biogas must be refined to primarily “bio methane” before it can be put into a utility’s natural gas pipeline, said Peter Ettinger, the chief development officer of Bioenergy Devco.
Bioenergy Devco’s anaerobic digesters are about a quarter of a mile from BGE’s main pipeline that holds natural gas, which is primarily methane, according to Richard Yost, a spokesman for BGE. Through their interconnection agreement, BGE can extend its main pipeline to connect to Bioenergy Devco’s site in order to directly channel biogas into its distribution system.
This interconnection agreement marks the first “renewable natural gas” allowed on a utility system in Maryland.
“We try, in every location that we situate an anaerobic digester, to contribute to the replacement of fossil fuel-based natural gas with a clean green energy product,” Ettinger said. In other words, Bioenergy Devco displaces gas created from fossil fuel sources with gas created from organic sources, Ettinger said.
“I’m like the person who cleans up after a parade — I manage waste effectively, I reduce carbon emissions through the use of anaerobic digestion, and then I interconnect with a need-based source for renewable natural gas,” Ettinger said.
However, environmental advocates contend that burning biogas is not clean and should not be called a renewable energy source. Methane produced from organic waste creates the same pollution that liquid natural gas creates, said Lily Hawkins, the Maryland organizer for Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group. The only difference is the way the methane is produced, Hawkins said.
Although anaerobic digesters reduce the amount of methane that would otherwise be released directly in the air from landfills, the state should divert food waste to composting operations that can turn food waste into high quality fertilizer without producing methane, Hawkins said.
Biogas also relies on the same pipeline infrastructure as fossil fuels do, and those pipelines can leak, Hawkins said.
“Biogas is not any cleaner than burning fracked gas,” she continued.
Calling methane produced from organic waste a “renewable natural gas” gives energy companies an excuse to keep building new fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure, Hawkins said. “It’s really just a greenwashing scheme.”
To really mitigate climate change, the state needs to move off fossil fuels and toward renewable energy such as wind and solar, while reducing methane emissions as much as possible, she said.
Maryland’s renewable energy portfolio standard includes solar, wind, energy from poultry litter and food waste, and methane from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Those standards are mandates that states have set as goals for utilities to increase green energy. And renewable energy sources are able to receive state subsidies.
Hawkins said she believes Maryland lawmakers should remove biogas from the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard because RPS subsidies can incentivize companies to build more anaerobic digesters, which can perpetuate fossil fuel infrastructure.
Shawn Kreloff, CEO of Bioenergy Devco, said in a statement that the Maryland PSC’s approval “paves the path for future RNG projects in the state.”
By diverting food waste from landfills to anaerobic digesters, Bioenergy Devco is doing its part in reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and producing a “needed green fuel,” Ettinger said.
A recent state law requires large food generators to divert food waste from landfills and incinerators to organic recycling facilities like anaerobic digester facilities or donate servable food and send it to farms where it can be used as animal feed. The goal is to create a sustainable composting market in Maryland, said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the bill.
But Charkoudian expressed concern about connecting biogas from anaerobic digesters to pipelines primarily supplying fossil fuel into homes for energy uses that could easily be electrified, such as heating and cooking.
This allows “greenwashing” and for gas companies to say they are moving toward renewable energy without making systemic changes to the pipeline infrastructure that depends on fracked gas, Charkoudian said. And that slows the transition away from gas, she added.
Instead, biogas should be targeted to hard-to-electrify sectors like high-temperature industries that make steel and cement, Charkoudian said. But there is no infrastructure for biogas to go directly from an anaerobic digester facility to a steel plant. Instead, pipelines usually go toward heating homes and water.
Charkoudian said she is not opposed to biogas but is “very concerned” about the way it is being used now.
“Taking a teeny bit of biogas and sticking it in with fracked gas is not moving us towards the future that we need if we’re going to fully decarbonize to the level we need to,” she said.