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From trash to gas - could your waste be the next fuel to power your vehicle? There are several familiar alternatives to conventional gas-powered vehicles that are engineered to lower emissions and deliver cleaner energy; biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, and natural gas, to name a few. Overall, there is a great need to diversify transportation’s energy source, and it is clear that not one solution can satisfy a country of 300 million people. However, since natural gas has recently been in the news for its notorious mining technique, its blonde-haired blue-eyed cousin deserves some spotlight action on how it’s made, who is using it, and what kind of emissions it would cause if we used it in our vehicles.

Specifically, I am talking about the alternative fuel source Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), and this can be made from organic wastes discarded by homes, industries and agricultural operations (no harmful drilling required). This is different than the fossil fuel that has recently stirred up a heated debate over the potentially dangerous process of drilling or “fracking.” RNG from organic waste is deposited into special tanks called anaerobic digesters, which decompose and emit the biogases to be collected and refined into a fuel similar to fossil natural gas. The use of RNG has already swung into practice in a few places; at a large California landfill for example, biogases from the decomposing wastes have been refined into a clean fuel equal to 13,500 diesel gallons, powering almost 400 refuse trucks a day.  There are 7 more cases of these projects that you can read about in a new report by Energy Vision, entitled “Renewable Natural Gas (RNG): The Solution to a Major Transportation Problem.”

In February of last year, the U.S. Department of Energy funded a $30 million competition aimed at discovering ways to “harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas for vehicles.” Since, 13 research firms have been awarded and are working on innovative technologies. Currently, 112,000 vehicles in the United States are running on natural gas, and while this is different than RNG, it is still a step in the right direction to reduce emissions and promote alternative car fuels.

It is considered a “cleaner” fuel due to its lower carbon content. Compared to its gasoline and diesel counterparts, a natural gas powered vehicle emits 6% – 11% lower levels of green house gases throughout the fuel life cycle. Using this alternative fuel may also reduce some types of tailpipe emissions. Currently, natural gas is about $1.50 to $2.00 less per gasoline gallon equivalent, and, if implemented into our infrastructure, could help mitigate many emissions standards that will continue to get more stringent in the United States. Following in the footsteps of UPS, perhaps encouraging natural gas-powered fleets would be a great step in the right direction when it comes to implementing this alternative fuel.

Similar to electric vehicle initiatives, an RNG network would require extensive fueling stations, and the price of a vehicle will still stand above a conventional gas powered car. There are limited options at the present (only Honda offers a natural gas powered car) and the home refueling system can cost you a fortune. In the end, there are always going to be drawbacks for a mass network of alternative fueling stations and vehicles. It will be interesting to watch the evolution and diversification of such fuels and which one – electric, ethanol, hydrogen, or natural gas – becomes implemented on a mass scale that is comparable to gasoline. Could it be from your very own trash can?

EarthGarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet.