Lawrence customers soon may be able to pay extra on natural gas bills to promote greener energy

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Jerry Watkins, general manager of Kansas operations for Black Hills Energy, discusses the proposed pilot project Monday in Lawrence. It would allow people to voluntarily pay an extra amount on their monthly natural gas bills to help fund something called “renewable natural gas.”

Nearly everyone at this point understands how a wind turbine or a solar panel can help make the electricity used in your home more environmentally friendly. But how the heck does a landfill, or even a dairy farm, make the natural gas used in your home greener?

Lawrence residents appear on the verge of finding out.

Lawrence is a part of a proposed pilot project announced Monday afternoon by Black Hills Energy, the largest natural gas provider in the city. The company is seeking approval from state utility regulators that would allow people to voluntarily pay an extra amount on their monthly natural gas bills to help fund something called “renewable natural gas.”

That brings up a couple of questions: How much extra, and what the heck is renewable natural gas?

First question first: The extra fee on a monthly bill likely would be between $5 to $15 a month. The fee would be voluntary. Customers would have to choose to participate in the program, then could pick a level at which to participate. Black Hills estimates that $15 a month is how much the average household would have to spend to completely offset the carbon footprint of the natural gas they use in their homes.

Second question: Renewable natural gas is basically gas that you don’t have to drill deep into the ground to get, as you do with fossil fuel-based natural gas. A common example of RNG is the methane that is produced at a landfill. When trash begins decomposing in a landfill, it releases methane gas, which can be harmful to the environment. But landfills can capture that methane, clean it and then use it much like traditional natural gas. Other examples involve capturing the methane created by cows at a dairy farm. (Don’t make me explain how a cow creates gas. That is a Powerpoint you don’t want to see.)

The idea behind the Black Hills pilot project is that the extra fees that customers voluntarily pay would be directed to companies or organizations that are actually capturing methane and putting it into the natural gas system. More methane based natural gas put into the system means less need to drill for fossil fuel-based natural gas. Plus using the methane gas keeps it out of the environment, where it can contribute to global warming.

However, renewable natural gas projects are far less common than wind and solar projects that are dotting the landscape. Partially for that reason, Black Hills is proposing that the extra money customers pay won’t just go to support renewable natural gas. It also will be used to support “carbon offset” programs.

A carbon offset program can be as simple as the creation or maintenance of a wetland environment, which has all types of plants that naturally capture carbon. Or, it could be a tree-planting program. Or grassland-preservation project. Scientists are able to measure how much carbon certain types of environments are able to capture. The carbon projects become certified and are able to quantify how much carbon they are capturing.

Black Hills would only invest in certified carbon capture projects. Plus, Black Hills would provide annual data to both customers and state regulators to show how much renewable natural gas they are purchasing through the program and how much carbon they are capturing.

The project could get started as soon as January 2023, but it first must win approval from the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities.

In filing with the KCC last week, Black Hills said the new program would not create any profit for Black Hills. The fees will cover the administrative costs of the program, but otherwise all the money will be used for investing in renewable natural gas or carbon capture projects.

Black Hills plans to offer the project to all of its Kansas customers, which in addition to Lawrence includes parts of Wichita, Dodge City, Garden City and several smaller communities.

“Our customers have told us they are interested in sustainable energy, and we’re listening,” said Jerry Watkins, general manager of Kansas operations for Black Hills Energy. “We’ve designed this voluntary RNG and carbon offset program with their direct feedback in mind, cultivated over the past two years through customer survey which indicated 60% would be interested in participating in a voluntary RNG and carbon offset program.”


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