Vermont Gas Systems will begin offering renewable natural gas — methane produced from landfills, cow manure and other organic sources — this heating season, regulators said last week.
The company was required to develop a plan to do so as part of the approval for its recently completed 41-mile natural gas pipeline into Addison County.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent hailed the Public Utility Commission’s approval of the plan as an important first step, but she said many details remain to be determined, such as how much the premium gas will cost.
Customers who choose to buy it will pay extra. Parent said those who don’t sign up for renewable natural gas won’t face additional costs associated with the program.
Vermont Gas says its past studies have indicated around 85 percent of the company’s ratepayers would be willing to pay up to 10 percent more if the natural gas they bought came from renewable sources.
“We already have a lot of interest,” Parent said. “We’ve been hearing from customers for a long time that they want a clean, reliable and renewable choice, and RNG offers a simple way to move to renewable.”
Ratepayers will need only to check a box on their bills and indicate what proportion of their natural gas use they want covered by renewable sources.
Their choice doesn’t actually change the composition of the gas they burn, since the renewable methane the utility buys would be fed into the overall mix that flows through its pipelines. But customers who opt in will help underwrite the higher cost of that fuel, much the way some electric customers choose to pay a premium to help cover the cost of buying renewable power.
Nothing needs to be changed on VGS customers’ equipment to burn renewable gas, Parent said.
The company plans to finalize details such as pricing and begin offering the service later this year, Parent said. An announcement with more specifics on the program and key dates is likely within weeks, she said.
It also remains to be determined exactly where the renewable natural gas will come from — either in state or out, or some combination, Parent said.
The state’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, has had some success selling a similar product, said company spokeswoman Kristin Carlson.
GMP customers can opt to pay a premium for electricity produced from decomposing cow manure, marketed under the “Cow Power” moniker. More than 2,000 Vermonters pay the premium, Carlson said, to help the utility purchase electricity generated with gas produced by waste from cattle herds on 14 Vermont farms.
Natural gas is almost entirely methane, and organic matter produces methane as it breaks down into simpler molecules. That is how the fuel is acquired from unconventional sources like cow manure and garbage.
Natural gas has been found to heat the Earth at least 25 times more energetically than carbon dioxide, the primary pollutant driving global warming. Recent research has found that natural gas is likely to be on par with coal for its tendency to contribute to climate change.
Much of that influence on the Earth’s climate comes from the production of natural gas, when it leaks into the air, and not from the carbon dioxide released when natural gas is incinerated in homes and businesses.
Considered solely through the lens of carbon dioxide released from incineration, natural gas releases substantially less of the pollutant than most other common fuels, such as heating oil.
Because almost all natural gas comes from within the Earth, environmentalists have increasingly opposed it as a fuel source, even as production and consumption have ramped steadily up over recent years.
One of the foremost opponents of Vermont Gas’ recently completed 41-mile natural gas pipeline extension into Addison County has argued that the company’s renewable gas program doesn’t go far enough.
David Hill, the distributed resources director at Vermont Energy Investment Corp., submitted testimony last year on behalf of the Conservation Law Foundation as part of the pipeline’s state approval process. Focusing on the renewable gas program, he said the utility should be required to buy a small percentage of all its fuel from renewable sources.
Electric utilities in Vermont are required to get an increasingly large share of their energy from renewable sources, under the terms of a so-called portfolio standard adopted last year. Hill proposed a similar requirement for VGS.
In testimony concerning the VGS pipeline, a Vermont Department of Public Service analyst last year recommended such a requirement, starting at 1 percent and building to 20 percent by 2035.
The current renewable natural gas program is entirely voluntary, and Parent said it would not affect ratepayers who don’t choose to pay for it.
“This is a premium product. Customers will be able to choose how much they want — from 10 percent to 100 percent,” Parent said. “If folks don’t want that option, they don’t have to. It’s a choice.”