By Marcus Gillette, Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas. Published in Biomass Magazine | March 29, 2017
“A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” Samuel Butler, 19th Century English author and poet.
Accomplished writers seem to cast a negative, narrow view on labeling terms with precise definitions. I respectfully disagree with that perspective, especially considering Oxford Dictionaries’ recently named “post-truth,” the 2016 word of the year. Definition of industry terminology matters in our sustainable biomass and bioenergy industries. Allow me to explain.
I work for the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, representing the interests of the renewable natural gas (RNG) industry in North America. Having said that, whether you realize it or not, your understanding of what you just read (who I work for) may very well differ from another reader of this article on the other side of the country or across an ocean, or even from your fellow industry colleague in the office next door to you.
I have listened to speakers and watched presenters haphazardly substitute one industry term for another, as they move from one presentation slide to the next, leaving behind a bewildered audience. I have been in the middle of conversations with a new industry contact for up to half an hour before we realized that we were essentially speaking separate languages by using different industry terms to convey similar ideas. I know I’m not alone in this; colleagues have recounted similar stories.
Definitions matter. They provide clarity. Accurate communication and understanding result in effective conversations and facilitate efficient business dealings, especially in what is considered a post-truth era.
This is evidently even more relevant to those of us working in growing, niche industries, as we frequently battle to overcome misunderstanding. For example, meetings with regulatory agencies and with offices on Capitol Hill have not infrequently required rabbit trails to correct misunderstandings. “Don’t bioenergy, biogas and renewable natural gas refer to the same thing?”
To prevent future confusion, to save you future time and perhaps even future profits, the RNG Coalition and the American Biogas Council have collaborated in recent months in order to bring clarity to those working in North America whose roles cross over into the biogas and RNG industries (and any biomass, waste to energy, or connected policy and regulatory position). We have drafted, vetted and come together to put forth the following agreed upon definitions.
• Biogas is “a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrocarbons, primarily methane (CH4) gas, from the biological decomposition of organic materials.”
• Syngas is “a gas mixture composed primarily of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), along with hydrocarbons from the thermochemical decomposition of organic or inorganic materials.”
• Conditioned biogas is “medium-Btu biogas that is stripped of some trace contaminants and water, but maintains the relative mix of CO2 and CH4.”
• Biomethane is “biogas-derived, high-Btu gas that is predominately methane after the biogas is upgraded to remove most of the contaminants and a majority of the CO2 and nitrogen (N2) found in biogas.”
• RNG is “biomethane that is upgraded to natural gas pipeline quality standards such that it may blend with, or substitute for, geologic natural gas.” *
• Renewable compressed natural gas (R-CNG) is “RNG that is compressed to a high pressure, often for use as a transportation fuel.”
• Renewable liquefied natural gas (R-LNG) is “RNG that is converted to liquid form, often for use as a transportation fuel.”
The distinctions in these definitions are important for regulatory bodies and policymakers to understand, especially as biogas, including landfill gas, is increasingly upgraded to biomethane for injection into natural gas pipelines as RNG, and eventually used as a transportation fuel in the form of R-CNG or R-LNG. While some natural gas pipelines have received RNG for decades, a number of pipelines are exploring, for the first time, how to make these interconnections feasible. The language used in pipeline interconnection agreements and pipeline gas specifications is critical. Studies on, or testing of, a raw biogas will show much different results as to constituent makeup and characteristics of biomethane, which has been cleaned and conditioned by natural gas treatment technologies.
Imprecise or incorrect use of one term in place of another can thus prevent sustainable gas from a landfill or anaerobic digestion facility from meeting a prescribed specification and reaching its highest and best use.
Providing precise definitions of terms can have positive impact beyond ensuring a clearly understood conversation or a well-educated audience. Using the same terminologies to enable the same comprehension of industry definitions in legal contracts, regulatory documents, and in drafting policy language could prevent legal issues and be critical in preserving the company’s bottom line.
Socrates is credited with saying that, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” As an industry, we should further adopt this wisdom by standardizing and embracing these definitions.