Renewable natural gas is untapped clean energy for Michigan


As one of the Great Lakes states with an abundance of natural resources, Michigan should do everything in its power to promote sustainability and renewable energy solutions. But we are not. To date, we have largely overlooked an innovative opportunity to dramatically reduce carbon: renewable natural gas. However, new legislation is about to change this.

New bill calls for a state-wide raw materials study to measure Michigan’s overall renewable natural gas potential – a clean, reliable, waste-derived fuel that can be used to power homes , businesses and vehicles. It is already showing its value with a handful of operational projects in Michigan, but its success is not widely known.

One such example is Michigan State University (MSU), where I am the director of the MSU Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center (ADREC). We operate a commercial anaerobic digester on campus to convert organic waste into renewable energy – biogas (the precursor to renewable natural gas).

At MSU, the renewable process relies on a few key sources of waste.

In a typical year, we have about 17,000 students on campus. Culinary services serve tens of thousands of people every day. We also have a collection of cafes and convenience stores on campus. In addition, MSU farms are home to many animals, including cows, horses, pigs, cattle, sheep and chickens.

About 22,000 to 25,000 tonnes of organic waste produced by both culinary services and animal operations is used by the digester each year. With a combined heat and power (CHP) unit, we are able to convert biogas into renewable electricity to offset the power of up to 12 South Campus facilities – while creating enough thermal energy for support the operation.

Renewable energy is not the only advantage. On campus, we have also been able to advance key sustainability goals by reducing landfill and food waste disposal from culinary services and improving manure management on farms.

Now imagine the MSU community and extrapolate what it might look like if the whole state were to engage in this process. Our robust agricultural industry would particularly benefit from tapping into the agricultural waste stream: an untapped source of energy and income that is currently dormant across the state.

One of the biggest advantages is that it can intervene directly to replace natural gas. Existing gas appliances, equipment or infrastructure do not need to be modified to support the technology. Therefore, we can introduce the carbon neutral fuel without impacting the distribution.

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It’s a new formula for Michigan, but by taking a step-by-step approach, we can use renewable natural gas to make Michigan more sustainable. In the short term, helping Michigan farms adapt and produce it will have an immediate impact. In the long term, we are all set to achieve a carbon neutral state, which leads to a more sustainable Great Lakes region.

For Michigan, a commodity study is the best first approach. This will demonstrate Michigan’s untapped clean energy supply, and I applaud our lawmakers for taking this milestone.

But we don’t need an official study to see the benefits. We just have to turn to MSU, where we show exactly what this technology can do for the environment, the farming community, and waste management.

As we do with solar, wind, and other renewable technologies, if Michigan is to create the cleanest future possible, we must focus on renewable natural gas.

Wei Liao is Associate Professor and Director of MSU’s Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.


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