Landfills produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions as organic waste like food scraps, wood, and paper decompose and produce methane. They released an estimated 16.8% of the country's methane emissions in 2020. Methane vented into the atmosphere is a greater contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide emissions. 

One of the companies quietly working to solve this problem is leading landfill owner WM (WM 0.07%), formerly Waste Management. The collections and recycling company is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to capture these emissions and turn them into renewable energy. It's one of several companies looking to simultaneously reduce emissions while providing the country with more energy.

Methane pipes at a landfill with the sun setting in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Turning a harmful gas into a useful fuel

WM recently unveiled plans to invest $825 million from 2022 to 2025 to expand its renewable natural gas (RNG) infrastructure. RNG is methane gas captured at the source and turned into pipeline quality gas. It has significantly lower emissions than other fuel sources like gasoline, diesel, and coal. 

WM is already a leader in using landfill gas. It currently captures landfill gas at 144 of the landfills it owns and operates. It feeds some of this methane into gas-to-electricity plants that produce renewable power. It also makes RNG at 16 plants that help fuel its fleet of natural gas-powered garbage and recycling trucks. 

The company now plans to build 17 more RNG plants across North America by 2026, growing its RNG output by 600%. These new plants will produce enough RNG to power its entire fleet, double its initial goal to power half its fleet with RNG by 2025. On top of that, its operations will produce enough renewable energy to meet the energy needs of 1 million homes. These investments will help displace the about 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2026, equivalent to removing 3 billion miles driven by the typical gas-powered car. 

RNG is one of several relatively unnoticed investments the collections' company is making to reduce emissions and increase energy output. WM is also investing in projects using methane captured at dairies to fuel its fleet and hosts several wind and solar energy projects at some of its closed landfills.

RNG investment is soaring

WM is among a growing list of companies making major investments to build RNG projects. Natural gas pipeline giant Kinder Morgan (KMI 0.40%) purchased RNG developer Kinetrex Energy for $310 million last year. That company has two small-scale LNG production facilities, a 50% interest in a landfill RNG facility, and three other landfill RNG projects under development. Kinder Morgan is investing $146 million to develop those three facilities that will process gas from landfills owned by WM. 

Meanwhile, natural gas fuel company Clean Energy Fuels (CLNE 2.37%) unveiled a five-year strategic and financial plan to develop an RNG supply business earlier this year. It secured investments from BP (BP 1.86%) and TotalEnergies (TTE 0.67%), which are investing up to $100 million and $400 million, respectively, into its RNG business. These investments support RNG production projects at a growing number of dairy farms around the U.S. Clean Energy will distribute the RNG across its nationwide network of more than 550 natural gas refueling stations. 

These companies all see lots of growth potential in the emerging RNG market. There's the potential for U.S. RNG production to grow from less than half a billion cubic feet per day last year to over 3 billion cubic feet per day by 2050. This growing RNG production will help reduce methane emissions from landfills and farms while providing the country with more renewable energy. Meanwhile, it should supply RNG project developers with a growing stream of cash flow.

From a challenge to an opportunity

Methane emissions are harmful to the climate. However, methane is also a useful fuel, so capturing it can have dual benefits of reducing emissions and producing renewable energy. That's leading WM and other companies to invest in RNG production facilities to turn organic waste into sustainable renewable energy. These under-the-radar investments could pay big dividends down the road, providing WM and its peers with growing streams of sustainable income.