the man who built a biogas industry in 10 years
The province of British Columbia (BC) in Canada has set a target for biogas to deliver 15% of its energy needs by 2030 – up from 1% today. And that is in large part thanks to one man, Scott Gramm, manager of renewable natural gas (RNG) at FortisBC.
Mr Gramm was recently named Biogas Champion at the Canadian Biogas Association Awards in recognition of having been “a tireless RNG champion since 2010, playing a critical role in helping to develop and grow this fledgling industry”.
The citation continued, “In his fine work in the company, he has been a lynchpin in working with the BC Provincial Government, BC Utilities Commission, other stakeholders and industry suppliers. In short, he has been the catalyst for getting this effort off the ground; his efforts have also largely contributed to the favourable legislative and economic opportunities that now exist in BC for the biogas industry.”
Mr Gramm is at pains to emphasise that “I didn’t do this alone”. “I have had help from across my organization, from operations to executives to legal and marketing. I would characterize myself as the single thread of continuity over the past 10 years.”
But it wasn’t always that way. When he started out, he was a one-man band.
Staying relevant in an ‘anti-gas’ environment
Back in 2009 when he started with FortisBC – then known as Terasen Gas – the company was facing an existential crisis. Two years earlier the BC provincial government had passed the Clean Energy Act which was decidedly ‘anti-gas’, focused on delivering greenhouse gas reductions in a province where electricity generation is almost 100% hydroelectric. The writing was on the wall for natural gas, as the best approach to achieve GHG reductions was to electrify energy usage.
The Act was created in response to public demand, with the issue of climate change topping the news agenda in the wake of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) and amid negotiations to find a successor to the Koyoto Protocol. The BC public was demanding action from both the government and their energy suppliers.
“You have to remember, in BC we see ourselves as left coast and liberal, Canada’s California, and the average person agrees we should push to a more sustainable and lower carbon future,” says Mr Gramm.
As a result, FortisBC launched for separate initiatives: an energy conservation programme, an alternative energy systems programme centered around low-gas building energy systems, such as geothermal, natural gas for transportation and RNG, to enable the company to ‘stay relevant’. Mr Gramm’s job was to deliver the RNG projects, the first of their kind in BC.
It was not just about survival it was about the practical use of existing infrastructure. “If we had shifted to all electric we would have been abandoning millions of dollars worth of infrastructure.”
Nevertheless, even internally, RNG was seen as something of an expensive sideshow.
Mr Gramm says, “I don’t think our executives thought it was going to be real but thought it was worth taking a look at, thinking there might be an opportunity here.”
He embraced the challenge “to make something new happen” for FortisBC, as his boss put it. He went at it “like an Energizer Bunny… running on biogas”.
“Executives are now going, ‘Biogas, wow!'”
For those first few years he worked without a team, “relying on favours, persuasion and pity from my colleagues. It required a lot of patience and persistence.”
Having to build a department from the ground up involved him wearing multiple hats including regulatory, project management, technology selection and selling the idea across the organization and to the wider public.
Today couldn’t be more different. “The programme and team is now seen as strategic and is getting great support at the highest level.”
What changed in the interim was Mr Gramm’s passionate advocacy and dedicated groundwork gained traction. His first supply project came on stream in 2010, by 2015 there were four. Currently there are five with two more in the pipeline. In 2011 a customer programme was established which allowed customers to voluntarily participate individually by paying a small premium on their bills for RNG.
At every step of the way Mr Gramm was necessarily engaging with local authorities and politicians, business and public, extoling the myriad virtues of anaerobic digestion – as both a sustainable source of renewable energy and means of tackling climate change. So, when the company was challenged several years ago at boardroom level over what it was doing for sustainability it was able to play the RNG card.
It gave FortisBC a seat at the table when discussions began about the province’s renewable energy future, which has ultimately resulted in the 15% biogas target. “That wouldn’t have been considered if it weren’t for the RNG programme. What’s that worth? The executives across the company are now going, ‘Biogas, wow!’”
How customers have been converted to biogas
Since starting at FortisBC Mr Gramm has consistently delivered three key messages that will resonate with those made by RNG developers in many countries: the RNG programme aligns with government policy to reduce emissions; our customers demand and expect it as an option; and the price is reasonable, when compared to other forms of equivalent energy.
He explains, “In BC, FortisBC can pay up to $30 a gigajoule for RNG, which is about $0.10/kWhr. Conventional natural gas is about $4/Gj. So when comparing gas to gas it looks expensive but when comparing to electricity it is reasonable.”
It was apparent that customers would vote with their pockets if offered an either/or tariff to receive RNG over conventional natural gas, so a voluntary system was introduced, so that a customer could pay a monthly premium of about $5 for 5% RNG content. Customers pay a premium for a designated percentage of their use and on their behalf FortisBC makes sure to procure an equal amount of RNG from its suppliers. Customers can also opt to purchase more in increments up to 100% of their consumption.
It was marketed as local, sustainable energy, chiming with the popular movement of ‘food miles’ and ‘farmer’s markets’. “That has played well with local voluntary customers,” says Mr Gramm. “They like the idea of their extra costs going to the farmer. We intentionally structured the voluntary programme in a way to maximise residential participation because the price per GJ would otherwise be prohibitive. We have found that $5 per month, the price of a premium cup of coffee, is a nice number to get lots of residential participation.”
Currently, they number over 10,000.
Business customers, while fewer in number, account for most of the volume. “The government recognizes the use of RNG as an emissions savings measure. There is no carbon tax on RNG and transportation customers can monetise emissions reductions if they use RNG.”
Fortis BC recently signed an RNG-supply contract with TransLink, making it the first public transportation authority in Canada to use RNG. Under the agreement FortisBC is to provide up to 500,000 gigajoules (GJs) annually within five years, enough to fuel the existing natural gas bus fleet with 100% RNG. Over the five-year period, the transition to RNG will reduce TransLink’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50,000 tons – equivalent to taking 10,000 cars off the road for one year.
The next big challenge; 15% biogas
Now the greatest challenge facing Mr Gramm is delivering enough RNG to meet demand.
“Now the question is how we get to 15%, that’s what we’re laser focused on,” says Mr Gramm. “We know we can achieve 5% using conventional sources of feedstock for anaerobic digestion [food and agriculture waste] within BC. However, we will also look to source outside the province to help meet that ambitious target.”
He adds, “If the technology is developed to enable the use of wood waste, then that would be a game-changer for the province. We would be capable of delivering 40% if we can use wood waste as a feedstock.”
Mr Gramm has delivered a remarkable conversion, not only away from conventional natural gas to RNG, but also of attitudes, which is perhaps the biggest challenge facing RNG development globally. Given that Mr Gramm has built a biogas industry from nothing in 10 years, anything is possible.
- Scott Gramm will be sharing his experience at the World Biogas Summit at the Birmingham NEC on July 3.