While renewable natural gas (RNG) is nothing new to agriculture, particularly around areas of large concentrations of confined animal feeding, biomethane is getting some high profile converts from big name tech companies as a tool to reduce carbon emissions.

Over the past year, L’Oreal USA, Apple and Microsoft have all taken steps involving natural gas and RNG to reach “carbon neutral” goals.

Earlier this year, officials at L’Oreal USA, the hair-care and beauty product giant, contracted a 15-year supply of RNG from the Big Run Landfill in Ashland, Ky., to process and sell into the interstate natural gas system. The move, which accounts for 40% of the landfill’s gas production, is part of L’Oreal’s effort to help fuel producers comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard. At the same time the company will buy carbon offsets from the EPA’s RNG program until a 5-year break-even point. After that, officials say the project will make L’Oreal’s system of 19 manufacturing and distribution sites carbon neutral.

“Given the number of landfills in the United States that have the potential to convert landfill gas to renewable natural gas, we believe our approach could serve as a model for other businesses to support RNG projects in a way that is both environmentally and financially sustainable,” says Jay Harf, L’Oreal’s vice president of Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability.

Apple, too, is using RNG as part of its private power systems, which use methane as a feedstock for electricity produced by electrochemical processes in fuel cells. The projects include a 10-megawatt fuel cell station at the company’s Maiden, N.C., data center, along with a 4-megawatt unit at Apple Park headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Both of these systems are paired with solar arrays.

Microsoft is also shooting for “carbon neutrality” and is investing in RNG to meet that goal at its Wyoming-based Cheyenne data center. There, the company has built a biogas-powered fuel cell facility which taps methane generated by a local municipal wastewater treatment plant. The biogas produces 250 kilowatts of power, 100 of which is used by the Microsoft facility and the rest powers the wastewater plant.

While not fueled with RNG, Microsoft also provides backup generating capacity for local utility Black Hills Energy for peak-load demands. Using commercial natural-gas fired turbine generators at the Cheyenne facility, Microsoft’s partnership allows Black Hills Energy to defer construction of expensive additional generating capacity.

The influence of large industrial firms moving toward 100% renewable energy gains attention from others.

Apple officials say when they announced in April that the company was globally powered by renewable energy, they also noted nine new vendors were pledging the same reliance on renewables. That number represents 23 of Apple’s suppliers providing demand for RNG and other renewable energy sources.

Mainstream Infrastructure

As industrial demand for RNG develops, so do opportunities for RNG producers and those who design equipment to use biomethane.

As we’ve written in other Farm Equipment articles, the emergence of the U.S. as a predominate holder and exporter of abundant natural gas supplies has spurred development of so-called “low carbon” engine technology on both sides of the Atlantic.

The availability of fuels like compressed and liquefied natural gas, along with increasing volumes of farm-produced biomethane, was responsible for New Holland’s recently introduced concept tractor designed to operate in a “closed loop” cycle that powers farm equipment with energy produced on the farm with waste plant and animal products.

In fact, over the past 20 years CNH Industrial has fielded more than 30,000 spark-ignited natural gas engines running on CNG and LNG. And, in Europe, more than 20,000 trucks and buses operate on natural gas with IVECO engines produced by FPT Industrial, CNH’s powertrain brand.

The latest research thrust aimed at improving the performance of spark-ignited, “low carbon” fueled agricultural and industrial engines was announced in late summer and concentrates on improved heat rejection.

UK-based heat-management specialist Zirotec said in August it will be part of a US$13 million government-funded project with a consortium of major UK automotive suppliers to improve the performance, autonomy and efficiency of a low-carbon agricultural tractor using an engine fueled by natural gas or “biogas” instead of diesel.

Zirotech says it is contributing heat management consultation to the project, because the methane-based fuels yield much higher exhaust gas temperatures than comparable diesel-fuel measurements.

“The change of fuel leads to much higher exhaust temperatures and a completely different after-treatment system to a diesel tractor, without any realistic package space remaining for conventional heat shields and insulation,” says Zirotech’s Group Sales Director, Graeme Barette. “There are also significant challenges to overcome with regard to emission control, especially during cold-start conditions.”

Led by New Holland Agriculture, the project is expected to be complete by mid-2020.