Customers of Vermont Gas Systems are now burning renewable natural gas as a small mix of their overall natural gas consumption, the company announced Thursday.
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark said the three-month pilot program began last week with a small amount of renewable natural gas flowing into the VGS system that serves 50,000 customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties. He said the pilot project is enough to heat 350 average homes.
Also known as biomethane, the renewable natural gas comes from a landfill operator in Quebec and piped into the transmission system, Wark said.
The renewable natural gas can also be sourced from manure.
“What we hear a lot from folks, and I think we heard it a lot in other energy sectors, is the desire to move toward a more renewable future,” Wark said.
He called the pilot program a milestone for the company.
“Not to mention it fits in perfectly with the work we’ve been doing with a developer who’s creating a biomethane plant in (southern) Vermont,” Wark said.
Wark added how much of the renewable gas flows to Vermont at any time during the three-month pilot period will vary.
“Some of it may be here and some of it may not actually make it here,” he said.
Wark said that by investing in renewable natural gas, or biomethane, “we’re starting to decrease the focus on traditional natural gas.”
He added that renewable natural gas is slightly more expensive than traditional natural gas.
VGS is in the process of extending its pipeline south to Middlebury, then connecting to the International Paper mill across Lake Champlain in New York, and finally extending the pipeline to serve parts of Rutland County.
Construction on the first phase of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project is already underway.
In the process, VGS has encountered vehement opposition from some quarters to the importation of fracked natural gas from Canada.
Opponents cite the environmental damage caused by hydraulic fracking as an extraction method. They also argue that increasing the reliance on natural gas runs counter to the state’s goal of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.
Paul Burns of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group called the VGS announcement a “greenwash.”
“That doesn’t make the bulk of their gas one bit cleaner,” said Burns, VPIRG’s executive director.
While capturing methane gas is laudable, Burns said, he objected to the company calling methane gas from the Quebec landfill renewable. He said Vermont’s stated goal is zero waste so landfills no longer exist.
“Landfills are not a source of renewable energy,” he said. “That’s what I find objectionable.”
Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said VGS needs to go much further if its efforts are going to make a difference.
“The VGS announcement represents a very modest and overdue first step,” Levine said in an email. “It needs to be more than a small pilot program to make a difference and help Vermonters tackle climate change. Going forward, the scale of the VGS biomethane efforts needs to increase significantly.”
As part of the Public Service Board approval of Phase I, Vermont Gas is required to develop renewable natural gas as part of its energy mix.
“While it is admittedly a modest initiative,” Wark said, “it is enormously impactful in the direction that the company is going to be moving in.”
Asked whether biomethane could eventually replace traditional gas, Wark said that can’t be answered yet.
“This is still an emerging technology,” he said.
Wark said it really depends on how waste is managed going forward.
Like Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power program, he said, VGS could allow customers to choose how much biomethane they want as part of their natural gas mix.
He also said the announcement was not a concession to pipeline opponents.
“It has been one of our stated goals for many years,” Wark said.
He said renewable natural is even better for the environment than traditional natural gas, with lower emissions.
Like the Cow Power program, renewable gas production helps farmers get rid of manure, reducing phosphorous runoff from farm fields into waterways like Lake Champlain.
Wark also said adding biomethane to natural gas is more efficient than turning methane into electricity.
In its press release, VGS cited the Natural Resources Defense Council, which concluded that biomethane could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.8 million metric tons nationally, or the equivalent of taking 6.5 million cars off the road.
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