Merde alors: biogas turns to a new raw material
Biogas — or turning biological matter into fuel — is knee-deep in excrement.
That’s because biogas is losing ground to more popular renewable technologies like wind and solar, while worries over the impact on food prices of using crops for fuel is forcing a re-think. So instead of making fuel out of corn and soybeans, the industry is shifting to a much greater reliance on human and animal waste.
Biogas became popular as a renewable source of energy because it provides a clean substitute for fossil fuels, and governments across Europe gave the industry generous financial support to help them hit their national renewable energy targets. By 2015, there were 17,240 biogas plants across Europe, used for everything from generating electricity to powering cars, trucks and buses.
But as the cost of wind and solar power continues to drop, producing energy from biogas is looking less and less attractive. In reaction, governments across the continent are starting to withdraw their support. This summer, Germany passed a bill cutting subsidies to biogas, and the U.K. recently placed a cap on how much electricity can be produced from the fuel. Other EU countries like the Czech Republic and Austria have also reduced subsidies.
“Biogas plants are growing, but they’re reliant on support schemes,” said Susanna Pflüger, secretary-general of the European Biogas Association, a lobby group. Without that government cash, “biogas is not competitive,” she said.
So biogas producers are now turning for salvation to animal and human excrement, sewage and food waste, using those unpalatable sources as cheap fuel feedstock.
The Nordic countries are leading the way. Finland gets more than 50 percent of its biogas from sewage. Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all so hungry for the stuff that they import waste from the rest of Europe. While these countries are used to burning waste for heating, they are also increasingly producing gas from the organic waste they acquire.
Left in the field, manure emits methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. But using manure to produce biogas captures the methane and puts it to use. It helps farmers produce their own electricity, and one of the byproducts of the process by which manure is turned into gas, called anaerobic digestion, produces prime organic fertilizer, helping farmers even more.
“There’s lots of potential for sewage and food waste,” Pflüger said. “Wherever humans go, they produce waste, and that’s all we [the biogas industry] need.”
Germany is the undisputed industry leader. With more than 8,000 plants, it produces more than half of Europe’s biogas. In 2012, biogas formed 18 percent of Germany’s renewable electricity share, neck-and-neck with solar, which was at 20 percent. Since then production has flattened out, and this July the government passed a renewable energy bill that ends the generous state support that had buoyed the industry.
“The German government thinks biogas is too expensive,” said Sebastian Stolpp with the German Biogas Association, a lobby group.
Berlin is also ending support for energy crops — a crop specifically grown to make biogas, usually corn — which accounted for more than half the German biogas feedstock. The worry is that growing such crops has a negative impact on food prices and supply by taking up land and resources that could instead be used for food production.
That has the German industry hunting for other raw materials.
“We’re moving to manure,” said Stolpp.
The sector is also shifting to smaller plants built close to farms, which require smaller investments to build.
But the industry needs more than just manure, which isn’t as gas-rich as energy crops, (though chicken and pig excrement has more firepower than its bovine counterpart). “Farmers need to bundle [manure] with other materials like food and garden waste for a better gas yield,” Stolpp said. To do so, biogas plants need more human waste too.
“There is a decent potential in manure as feedstock,” said Martina Böhm, a representative for Landwarme, a German biogas trader, but “I see a higher potential for biogas produced from waste and residues.”
The industry is pushing for the EU to take biofuels into account when formulating waste management policies.
Brussels is getting “more and more” interested and aware, said Guillaume Virmaux, the EU affairs head of GRDF, France’s largest gas pipeline operator. “Three years ago, people were asking me ‘Biogas? What’s that?’ At least now they know.”
Industry representatives are vying for favorable treatment in a number of the Commission’s initiatives. They want specific language on organic fertilizers and waste in the revision of the Circular Economy Package; more countries to prohibit digging new landfills so that the waste headed there would be used for biofuels instead; and for more favorable manure policies under the Common Agricultural Policy.
All sewers lead to France
While Germany’s biogas sector is stagnant, the mood in France is a lot more optimistic, although its industry is still small. France only introduced feed-in tariffs for biogas — offering a higher price to producers — in 2011, setting off a boom.
French regulations set a 15 percent cap on using energy crops to produce biogas, so instead of crops, the government is redirecting food, agricultural and household waste to biogas plants.
“There were zero [plants] three years ago and there are 29 operational plants in the country now. We expect 100 in 2018,” said Virmaux.
Engie, another industry giant, also hopes to wade into the muck.
“We are very optimistic,” said François-Xavier Dugripon, who leads Engie’s biogas development. He called biogas “a very promising” sector in France. “We hope for an increase from 15-20 plants a year to between 50-100.”
Dugripon is pushing for a higher tariff for power produced from biogas plants, and a purchasing agreement between the government and biogas producers that lasts 20 years, as opposed to the current 15.
The optimism in France stems in part from generous feed-in tariffs and it remains to be seen whether the industry will look this rosy once the tariffs run out, but the sector is unfazed.
“We are facing a revolution,” said Virmaux. “We believe the age of biogas is coming.”