NYS has enacted ambitious greenhouse gas reduction policies under the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, but they fall short in addressing the biggest source of methane – the waste sector.
Methane is a “climate super pollutant” whose environmental impact is 84-87 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and rotting organic wastes generate nearly triple the methane (34%) than the State’s oil and gas industry does (12%). To stave off the worst effects of climate change, we must cut methane emissions significantly in the next few years – and that means turning the continuously generated streams of food waste, manure, wastewater, and landfill gas from liabilities into assets.
Fortunately, we know the path forward: converting that organic waste through AD into RNG. RNG is the lowest carbon fuel available and a proven commercial option today using existing technology. RNG is deeply carbon net negative when produced from food waste, manure, or wastewater, meaning that more greenhouse gases are captured during the fuel’s production than are released when it’s transported and consumed.
New York State currently has around 200 sites with operational anaerobic digesters, mostly using dairy manure, but it has vast potential for more from all sources of organic waste. With the right laws and regulations in place, Energy Vision has calculated that building ~20 new food waste digesters, ~20 digesters at wastewater plants, and ~260 dairy manure digesters would cut New York State’s methane emissions by 15%. Meeting that potential could equate to approximately 8,000 new jobs across the ~300 new projects and around $3.4 billion in capital deployed, a significant portion of which is expected to come from private capital markets and federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act.
Only about a dozen of New York’s current AD sites upgrade the resultant raw biogas into RNG, although many more could viably do so. According to Energy Vision’s calculations, the State’s RNG capacity today is just over 5% of its achievable potential of 44.4 million MMBTU/year. That much RNG could replace approximately 320 million gallons of diesel, which is enough to power 32,000 refuse trucks per year – enough for more than 15x the number of garbage trucks in NYC or about one-sixth of refuse trucks nationwide.
And using RNG to displace diesel – the dirtiest, highest-carbon fuel now powering heavy-duty vehicles – means big decreases in two health-threatening air pollutants: a 90% drop in nitrogen oxides and a 60% drop in particulate matter. This would prevent a significant number of hospitalizations and premature deaths, especially in environmental justice communities like the South Bronx where diesel traffic is concentrated.
Implementing two critical policies (both complementary to the State’s upcoming Cap and Invest program) would accelerate the expansion of AD infrastructure and RNG use in NYS and all the associated benefits:
- Lifecycle carbon accounting, which measures all greenhouse gases associated with a fuel or energy source, from production and transportation to end-use, rather than just the emissions from vehicle tailpipes and smokestacks in the State. It’s the gold standard used by the federal government and other states with ambitious climate laws.
- A Clean Fuel Standard, a state-level program in which producers selling low carbon fuels in that state earn valuable credits that high carbon fuel producers must purchase. Virtually no government funds are spent on implementing these standards; instead, the high carbon fuel producers are actually paying for the expanded use of clean fuels. California, Oregon, and Washington now have Clean Fuel Standards and several other states are considering this proven approach.
As RNG scales up in NYS, it is also vital to monitor pipelines in real time and stop any methane leaks. For the sake of the climate, public health, and the economy, it’s time for the Empire State to put its organic waste to work.