BioCNG™ For Your Car

Biogas used to be considered a non-reusable waste product, but over the last decade or so, a number of benefits of the gas have come to light and biogas is now recognized as a renewable energy source for fuel, electricity and thermal energy.

The folks at Unison Solutions in Dubuque, IA have created BioCNG™, a system that converts biogas into a gaseous fuel for vehicles, much like your typical clean natural gas (CNG). Jan Scott, President of Unison Solutions, gave a webinar – “Converting Biogas into Vehicle Fuel” – for Sustainable City Network about his company’s work, the process of turning biogas into usable vehicle fuel and some interesting facts about this renewable energy source.

The customary process for turning biogas into a renewable energy source seems simple enough. A lot needs to be removed from biogas after it has been extracted from landfills and digesters and before it can be used for energy. First, the biogas goes through hydrogen sulfide removal and then it is compressed. The gas needs to be completely dry, and so the moisture removal process is crucial. Once this is complete, the gas enters a Siloxane, Volatile Organice Compounds (VOC) and Carbon Dioxide removal process and then the fuel is ready for use in boilers, turbines and internal combustion (IC) engines. Unison Solutions notes that BioCNG™ is ready for use in CNG vehicle fueling stations and CNG vehicles at this point as well.
Source: BioCNG™

Jan Scott presented a bunch of inspiring tidbits about CNG in his webinar. The one that shocked me the most is that the US ranks 17th in the world for number of CNG vehicles on the roads (120,000 compared to more than 15.2 million worldwide). There are several existing reports about how much further along Europe is than we are in the states with these vehicles, but you’ll be interested to know that no European country is in the top five either. Nearly 19% of all CNG vehicles in the world are in Iran! Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, and India complete the top five. Most of these countries are developing nations, yet they’ve managed to bring far more clean vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them to their roads than we have.

In 2011 alone, CNG vehicles offset the use of over 350 MILLION gallons of gas. AND 40% of all waste haulers purchased in the same year were CNG. Imagine what we could do if we took alternative fuel and vehicles a little more seriously in this country. To top this all off, CNG costs at least $1.50-$2.00 less per GGE (Gasoline Gallon Equivalent: 120,000 BTU/Gallon) than gasoline does. That’s huge! (Source: Jan Scott's webinar)

Source: Unison Solutions

So, not to sound like a broken record, but we have a lot of concepts and technology out there to get cleaner vehicles on our country's roads. This stuff is far from untapped, but it can certainly seem that way when I look at how much other countries have accomplished in this area. America… let’s do better. Seriously.

Biogas industry seeks to clear the regulatory air

Fresno, Calif. and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley share some of the worst air in the United States.

A bootstrap industry, still trying to gain a toehold in the state, can remove tons of those pollutants and produce renewable energy at the same time. The concept would appear to meet the goal of the state's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which seeks to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

So what's the holdup?

Part economics, part regulatory. Five of the top people in the state's biogas industry met recently in Fresno with members of the California Public Utility Commission to explain the difficulties in getting bio-digesters up and running. The meetings were in Fresno City Hall. Each commissioner and his or her staff listened and gave feedback to various groups.

Making the case for biogas

The small but friendly renewables group spelled out all the potential a viable biogas industry could bring. But the group, who represented five companies, also explained the turmoil their operations face breaking into the market in a substantial way. And by and large, the commissioners, who met them one by one, appeared to see the merits of their cause.

The biogas representatives' plan is simple. The Valley is also home to 1,700 dairies, the most productive and largest milk production region in the country. These dairies also produce a huge amount of methane, mostly through cow poop.

Their companies, with the exception of one that uses agricultural waste, take what the cows discard and convert it to energy. However, to do this they need a little help. Because the industry is so new, development and operation costs somewhat exceed current return. The biodigestion process removes pollutants, which could improve the health of millions of people, but that benefit -- at this time -- isn't worth anything to banks. The fact that the industry could divert a huge amount of the state's greenhouse gas and create a renewable resource can't be monetized. And that means the projects don't look good to traditional financiers.

"We need a stable program to launch the industry," says Neil Black, president of California Bioenergy.

Industry could use a hand

There are a lot of details involved with getting a biodigester up and running. Suffice to say that most of them boil down to price per kilowatt hour. Utilities pay something like 8.9 cents, while the standard biodigester coupled to a energy-creating turbine needs something more, like 15 to 17 cents, at least at this early stage.

It's not uncommon for a developing energy source to get regulatory assistance. In the energy business, it's understood that every new resource needs some sort of subsidy to get started and eventually become profitable. Even oil.

Black says there only 11 biodigesters operating in California. He says about that many went out of business, unable to make the economics work.

"We're operating in five different states now, and all are easier than California," says Bob Joblin, who represents AgPower Group. He says he's had a project fully permitted for a year and a half, just waiting on assistance to unravel regulatory red tape.

Nettie Drake of Ag Power Development says she's working on her second digester, but it hasn't been easy. She says her business finds nothing but hurdles.

The cost of clean air

The difficult part is that of air quality. Because there is no viable methodology for trading carbon credits, where one company pays another to offset its pollution, there is no method for companies like Black's or Drake's or Joblin's to leverage those credits.

Congress has failed to pass cap-and-trade, meaning no sales of credits for biodigesters. However, California does show some promise -- but not until next year, when it's due to launch what Peter Weisberg of says is "the nation’s most comprehensive cap-and-trade program."

Weisberg says digester and composting project developers interested in generating carbon credit revenue "must now turn their attention to the intricacies of the emerging California carbon market."

Timing is key. The group at the CPUC meetings in Fresno says the opportunity for getting their current projects established and successful is limited. Expired permits, missed financing or mounting debt could sour farmers on the concept.

And it's farmers who take the risk.

Renewable energy

These projects could make a big difference. Black says the potential in California for all digesters, including waste water and ag waste is 3 gigawatts of power.

That's a pretty big deal. For example the twin reactors at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near San Luis Obispo produce about 2.2 gigawatts.

And it would remove greenhouse gases from the worst air in the nation. Fresno and other cities in the Valley are good at getting on lists no city wants any part of. For instance, Fresno has the distinction of having the nation's highest concentrated poverty and a number of Valley cities found their way onto the Top 10 residential foreclosure list over the past few years.

Bye bye brown haze?

The American Lung Association's 2012 State of the Air Report lists primarily Valley cities in its top 10 most polluted. One of the reasons for this airborne nastiness has to do with the region's geographic configuration (basin surrounded by two mountain ranges) its lack of wind and rain and the fact that everything from Los Angeles and the Bay Area migrates east and hangs out.

The biodigester industry is poised to do its part. And there's this: Biogas doesn't operate at the whim of mother nature like wind and solar. Hook it up to the grid and it could even out the highs and lows of other renewable power sources.

San Francisco biogas energy conference highlights profitability & technology

The opportunities and payback for biogas development have never been better.

But don't take our word for it. Listen to what about two dozen experts have to say at the Biogas USA West Conference 2011 scheduled this fall.

The event is planned for the South San Francisco Conference Center, 255 South Airport Blvd., South San Francisco, Oct. 11-12. Attendees also can participate in a pre-conference seminar introducing them to biogas-produced energy and/or a post-conference seminar entitled "Biomethane for Transportation."

"This is a particularly good conference to attend because it has a strong international attendance, too, so attendees get to hear about what is really happening in the world of biogas and its technology," said Hanafi R. Fraval, chairman of Ag Biomass Center Inc. in Los Angeles and an advisory board member to the event.

Biogas has ties to the San Joaquin Valley, which has been called a Petri dish for clean energy. The region has sun, wind and a diversified agricultural base that makes it a natural for development of biogas and biofuels. The region already has a number of methane digesters, giving host farmers another source of income.

On the conference agenda is Lewis R. Nelson, public works director for the City of Tulare and a clean energy expert. Commissioner Jim Boyd, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission, is the keynote speaker.

The event is being put together by GreenPower Conferences. Organizers said world markets for biogas are booming and operators are continuing to increase plant efficiency.

According to the American Biogas Council, there are more than 160 anaerobic digesters on farms and about 1,500 more operating at wastewater treatment plants in the country. But only about 250 of those wastewater plants use the biogas produced.

For more information and to register, go to

It's the economy; Energy efficiency gains big believers

Bill Clinton said it best: "It's the economy, stupid."

The former president reiterated his economy comment in a piece in Newsweek, offering energy efficiency measures as several of 14 ways to jump start the U.S. economy and create jobs.

He's hardly the first. The corporate sector, utilities and governments are swapping out old lighting and inefficient energy-hungry systems like crazy. Why? It saves money.

This rapid embrace of energy efficiency over the past couple years has a lot to do with money. IBM says it's saved $50 million since 2008 through energy saving and conservation measures. "Bottom line; it pays dividends," the company said in a statement.

Converts are signing up in droves. Wal-Mart, an early believer in sustainability, played a big part in expanding the movement's reach. For instance, the retailer has provided more than 100,000 of its global suppliers with a sustainability survey and encourages them to embrace energy efficiency policies.

Utilities also are playing a major part, especially in California where representatives work one-on-one with clients to install retrofits and save money and kilowatt hours. While they are somewhat inspired by financial incentive, most of these reps have become some of the best educated on how to adopt energy-saving measures for the least amount of money.

Efficiency-aware utilities are hardly limited to the Sunshine State. On the north side of the continent, Yukon Electrical Co. and Yukon Energy launched an innovative program with Ottawa, Ontario-based One Change, a nonprofit that encourages people to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors, including energy efficiency.

One Change is helping the utilities get feedback from residents in far-flung places like Carmacks, Teslin and Dawson about what conservation measures they think will work in their communities, said Sara Haskill, the organization's marketing manager. Many of the communities in the program "are quite isolated and have limited resources. Yukon is also not hooked up to the North American grid."

But people who live in these harsh lands know better than most what works and what doesn't. When it's 50 below, a poorly insulated house requires three and four times what a super-insulated house needs in terms of heat. Northerners also tend to be quite careful (one mistake and you're a human Popsicle) and imaginative.

"We are definitely looking forward to hearing what the people in Yukon have to say," Haskill says. "We are expecting some innovative thoughts. Stay tuned to our web site/twitter/facebook in the coming months."

Who knows? The next big idea that creates 100,000 jobs might come from a Canadian in Old Crow.

In the meantime, here are some more traditional measures:

1. Lighting. Go with compact fluorescents, T8s or even T5s, using digital ballasts. Install occupancy sensors. Try LEDs. Their price is dropping. I bought my first bulb last week.

2. Insulation. Load up. HGTV's Mike Holmes tells his viewers to go overkill, R-40 in ceilings or more. Weatherize. I insulated my floor last winter. California home didn't have a thing. Reduces cooling costs, too.

3. HVAC. Yeah, it's expensive, but newer and more efficient air conditioning units or furnaces pay for themselves. Seal up existing duct work or add new stuff.

4. Electric motors. In this category, I'm thinking pumps and other items that draw a lot of power. Go with premium efficiency or variable frequency drive.

5. Roofs. Paint 'em white. Go with a cool roof if you can afford it. The savings payback works. Clinton offers up this one as well.

Speaking of Clinton, he's got a couple more in his Newsweek piece.

6. Copy the Empire State Building. The iconic structure is the epitome of energy efficiency these days after a costly makeover by its owners. The building now stands as a monument of how to successfully retrofit structures erected far before we came up with the concept of greenhouse gas or net-zero.

7. Utilities. Get them in on the energy efficiency retrofit action, Clinton says. "You wouldn’t even need banks if states required the electric companies to let consumers finance this work through utility savings."

And diversify. Waste Management, the company that hauls trash for many of the nation's population, is no stranger to clean energy. Waste Management pioneered landfill gas technology 20 years ago and recently cranked up renewable energy generation power plants McMinnville, Ore. and Arlington, Wash.

"These projects show Waste Management's increasing focus on green technologies that extract value from waste," said Paul Burns, a company official in Pacific Northwest, in a statement. It's efficient.

Analysts often advise clients to institute efficiency measures first. Then, they say, there's the option of adding renewable energy.

But I'll wait for the advice from the folks of Old Crow, via One Change. Last I checked on the web cam there was some work going on down from the John Tizya Center. The community is northeast of my old stomping grounds in Fairbanks, Alaska in the Yukon on the Peel River. People who live there are no doubt efficient, and tough.

Photo: Screen grab from the Old Crow, Yukon Territories web cam.

Tulare Project A Showcase For Renewable Energy

When it comes to on-site energy generation, the city of Tulare is in some pretty heady company.

The community of 60,000 people uses biogas and fuel cells, and is installing solar power to help power its wastewater treatment plant. The ambitious clean-energy program, described in this case-study analysis, netted the city a 16th-place ranking on the Environmental Protection Agency's national list of top 20 producers of on-site power. That follows an award from the California Sustainability Alliance last year.

With 9.5 million kilowatts of annual generation coming from green power, this city in the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley ranked ahead of supermarket chain Safeway and just behind Macy's stores in California and Hawaii. And those production figures are likely to increase when city officials finish installing the fourth fuel cell and grant-funded solar plant.

About 38% of the electricity used to power the wastewater treatment plant comes from on-site green sources. The completion of the solar system (partially financed with Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants) and additional fuel cell will boost on-site green power usage even more - probably enough to push it up to 13th on the list - just behind Kohl's Department Store, said Lewis Nelson, city public works director.

Nelson says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. In 2010, Tulare was expected to save about $570,000 with the system.

The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.

Tulare is the largest governmental user of electricity in Tulare County, much larger even than Visalia which has twice the population. "That is because we have seven large cheese plants in Tulare and a separate industrial wastewater treatment plant for that high-strength wastewater," Nelson says.

The city's new industrial treatment plant, with a capacity of 12 million gallons per day, is tied with one in South Carolina for the largest in the nation, he says. It is the fourth-largest in the world.

Tulare is the only San Joaquin Valley city on a list that includes San Diego (No. 2 with 69 million kilowatts of green power generated from biogas, small hydro and solar), San Jose (No. 6 and biogas), San Francisco (No. 9 with biogas and solar) and Portland (No. 10 with an impressive mixture of biogas, small hydro, solar and wind).

The largest on-site green-power generator is Kimberly-Clark, which produces a whopping 176.5 million kilowatts through biomass. The U.S. Air Force (biogas, solar and wind), Walmart in California and Texas and a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina round out the top five.