The industrial era has led to unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, driven by technological innovation and human ingenuity. However, this period of rapid growth has been fueled almost entirely by fossil fuels, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide. Leading scientists and researchers agree: concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at their highest in 800,000 years, and continue to rise. In fact, just last year, global concentrations of CO2 eclipsed 400 parts per million (ppm) for an entire month for the first time.
Across the U.S. and world, new record high temperatures are being set every year; weather patterns are shifting, leading to more frequent and extreme storms and droughts; and glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. While the situation and consequences are dire, halting and reversing the impacts of climate change is not impossible. But it will require swift action — from policymakers and regulators to investors — to enable the innovation and implementation necessary to deploy sustainable, low-carbon, and renewable energy systems and solutions.
Energy Vision, through its research and analysis, has recognized one major climate strategy: renewable natural gas (RNG) made from organic waste. For more on the renewable natural gas strategy, check out our RNG Fact Sheet.
In addition to releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases, the combustion of fossil fuels (especially coal and petroleum-derived fuels) emits various air pollutants threatening to human health, including nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM). Vehicle emissions (especially heavy-duty vehicles) contribute a disproportionately high level of air pollutants, especially in urban centers. In fact, vehicle emissions cause 60-90% of air pollution in cities, leading to increased risk of asthma and other respiratory problems as well as impacts on the heart, nervous and vascular systems.
The U.S. EPA’s standards for new vehicles (since 2008) have significantly reduced emissions of pollutants harmful to human health, but many pre-2008 gasoline and diesel cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles travel our urban and rural roads daily. While catalytic converters and other emission control technologies are critical, a major shift to cleaner, pollution-free, non-petroleum fuels is critical to cleaner air and improved public health. For the heaviest, most fuel-consuming vehicles — trucks and buses — natural gas (renewable and fossil) is the only clean-burning non-petroleum option that exists today.
Americans generate more municipal solid waste (MSW) per capita than any other country in the world — about 250 million tons a year, or 4.4 pounds per person per day. (This does not include the millions of additional tons of agricultural and commercial waste.) Only 34% is recycled or composted, while the rest is landfilled or incinerated. Of the total 250 million tons, 28% or 70 million tons is organic — food and yard waste. All told, the waste industry generates between 1-5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a direct link between waste and resource management and the transition to a more sustainable energy future — organic waste. As organic wastes break down in airless environments, biogases (a mixture of primarily methane and carbon dioxide) are emitted. Biogases are produced from a variety of sources, including landfills, municipal solid waste, municipal wastewater, food processing wastes and agricultural manure through a process known as anaerobic digestion. Once purified, the resulting fuel is called renewable natural gas (RNG). The waste industry is uniquely positioned to produce and utilize RNG, whether it’s to generate electricity to offset grid power or to displace diesel in heavy-duty refuse trucks.
Despite immense recent progress in transitioning toward renewable sources of energy, in 2014, fossil fuels — coal (39%), natural gas (27%) and petroleum (1%) — accounted for 67% of the energy produced in the US. Renewables — hydro (6%), wind (4.4%), biomass (1.7%), geothermal (.4%) and solar (.4%) — which represent a growing share of energy production, only contributed 13% of total energy production, while nuclear power (~20%) generated the remainder. To achieve the ambitious climate and greenhouse gas (GHG) goals — an 80% reduction in GHG emissions (from 2005 levels) by 2050 — set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will require major commitments at every level of government (policy + regulation) accompanied by ongoing innovation and expanded implementation of existing technologies and solutions.
Research and analyses by Energy Vision and others indicate that renewable natural gas (RNG) made from organic waste can play a major role in achieving these ambitious GHG reduction goals. Whether it’s used to generate heat and power or transportation fuel, RNG is among the lowest-carbon fuels commercially available today. Its production and use, which achieves lifecycle GHG emission reductions of 80% or more, represents a growing opportunity to decarbonize the natural gas grid. However, while a number of commercially viable technologies — including solar and wind — exist to displace fossil fuel use in the power sector, RNG (and fossil gas) is one of the only options that exists for the heavy-duty transportation sector, which relies almost entirely on diesel fuel (see Transportation Section).
Transitioning toward sustainable, low-carbon, 21st century energy and transportation systems is critical to the future health of our planet, but this shift has major economic implications as well. On the one hand, the short-term economic viability of the technologies and projects necessary to make this transition a reality is paramount. In the medium- to long-term, the financial cost(s) of inaction are estimated to be astronomical and potentially crippling to regional, national and global economies.
Energy Vision is acutely aware of the importance of economic viability when analyzing and promoting strategies that will improve air quality, reduce environmental impacts and mitigate climate change. Each technology, strategy or project must be assessed independently and within a regional/geographic context. Our research and analysis indicates that the production and use of renewable natural gas (RNG) — made from organic waste — is a strategy that can achieve immense and immediate environmental and economic benefits in urban and rural environments across the country.
The U.S. transportation sector consumes more oil than all other sources combined, dirtying our air and costing billions every year. Petroleum-derived fuels account for approximately 97 percent of all the energy used by the transportation sector in the United States — more than 5 billion barrels of oil per year, or about 158 billion gallons. Heavy-duty vehicles, which account for just 4% of all on-road vehicles, consume almost a quarter of all on-road transportation fuel; a whopping 38 billion gallons per year. Moreover, these workhorse vehicles play a critical role in maintaining our health and safety and driving our economy. These vehicles are also responsible for transporting goods equivalent in value to almost 70% of U.S. GDP.
Energy Vision’s core team has been researching, analyzing and promoting economically viable, non-petroleum transportation fuels since the 1980’s. In the heavy-duty sector, natural gas is among the only commercially viable non-petroleum options to displace diesel. Better yet, ultra-low-carbon renewable natural gas (RNG) made from organic waste is becoming a more widely available alternative. EV continues to track, publicize, catalyze and educate on the production and use of RNG — the lowest-carbon non-petroleum transportation fuel available today.