Is Biogas Best?
In the world of waste management, much has been made recently about the rise of biogas.
Produced from the breakdown of raw materials, such as recycled waste, it leaves a very small carbon footprint and is a sustainable energy source. ‘
However, as with every form of renewable energy, biogas is currently experiencing some growing pains on a number of different fronts. The real question is: are they severe enough to hinder the industry?
The Industry’s Potential
In simple terms, biogas is produced using an anaerobic digester. Agricultural waste, sewage, and food waste is fed into the digester. It’s highly effective and leaves little carbon footprint. Also, it’s an effective form of waste management, as it provides a use for otherwise unusable waste. Its real benefits, however, lie in the waste-to-energy sector, as it has a variety of different uses.
It has been estimated that the usage of biogas could meet up to 3% of North America’s electricity needs. Compression of biogas could also replace compressed natural gas for usage in vehicles.
Its real potential lies in its uses in the agricultural sector. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 8,200 U.S. dairy and swine operations could support biogas recovery systems. This would be equivalent to roughly 13 million MWh and potentially displace 1,670 MW of fossil fuel generation annually.
Incorporating biogas into wastewater treatment to remove and reuse solids could be highly beneficial as well. According to the U.S. EPA, the energy generated at U.S. wastewater treatment plants could meet 12% of the U.S.’ national electricity demand.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 4 key benefits from using biogas: Increased energy security in biogas’ offsetting of non-renewable sources; Lower emissions via the capture of methane, which is 25 times stronger than C02 as a greenhouse gas; Easier compliance when it comes to landfill requirements; and perhaps most importantly, a cleaner environment through reduction of emissions and landfill waste.
While all of these aspects are certainly points for supporting the industry, what does biogas utilization look like in reality?
Giving the Industry Some (Bio)Gas
In practice, the biogas industry could hardly be doing better. 2014 has been a great year for biogas, as the industry has made strides forward both innovation and policy wise.
In the U.S., the EPA laid out its Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, which enlists diaries to help drive biogas production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Initially, biogas was left out of the EPA’s other renewable energy policy updates, but its current inclusion is being viewed as a big win for the industry.
“For the first time, our industry got recognized. That’s a huge success,” Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president of sustainability for the Innovation Center, said.
The roadmap has three major parts to it. The first involves identifying and overcoming the barriers that are currently hindering the biogas industry. Second, and perhaps most important, is educating financial institutions that biogas is a viable, reliable, and beneficial investment opportunity. And finally, the roadmap lays the groundwork for innovation and improvements to industry technology and practices.
While these are major leaps forward for the U.S. biogas industry, Europe is already leading the charge. In Germany, there are 6,800 digesters while the U.S. only has around 200.
Sweden has been using the technology for nearly a decade, using it to help revitalize the once-derelict city of Malmo via the Bo01-City of Tomorrow project.
“It was a challenge for the future,” explains Eva Dalman from the Bo01 architectural team. “Bo01 was the answer to the question, how could solve the biggest environmental problem, global ones, in a sustainable city development without making those sacrifices?”
Biogas, along with wind and solar installations, was a big part of that answer.
Still, there is room for improvement.
One major hurdle is the financial one. Startup costs for biogas plants are quite high, and that’s hurt their potential deployments in countries such as the U.S.
It’s estimated that there are roughly 2,100 biogas systems operating in the U.S. currently, though the potential exists for at least 10,000 more.
There is also concern that agricultural production will shift toward growing fuel, such as maize, rather than actual edible crops.
In fact in Germany 30% of the total maize harvest was fed into AD digesters. That biogas expansion has led to massive land use change at the expense of permanent grassland—creating so-called ‘maize-deserts’: huge areas of nothing but maize monocultures,” Kenneth Richter from Friends of the Earth writes. “Maize is an industrial crop high on artificial inputs such as pesticides and fertilizer; it is also making soils particularly prone to erosion and, as a result, flooding. Land used for maize crops is also particularly void of wildlife. Birdlife International has warned that the maize expansion is a serious threat to many bird species.”
And while biogas is already well established in Europe, the European debt crisis could threaten to derail that, as continued innovation requires quite a bit of funds.
“Financing for clean energy projects is therefore dependent upon the heath of the banking system,” writes Waste Management World. “Given the European banks' high levels of exposure to sovereign debts of states, the report cautioned that raising capital will likely become difficult and equally expensive. … According to GIA this makes the industry dependent on the financial health of the broader economy, which in turn dictates the government's willingness to support and subsidize renewable energy industries.”
So, is biogas the waste management solution we’ve been waiting for?
It’s certainly not perfect, but its place in the world of waste management has been very much solidified and will continue to evolve in the coming years.
Follow us on Twitter @EnergyDigital and on Facebook at /EnergyDig!
All but two UK regions failing on school energy efficiency
Most schools are still "treading water" on implementing energy efficient technology, according to new analysis of Government data from eLight.
Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East are the only regions where schools have collectively reduced how much they spend on energy per pupil, cutting expenditure by 4.4% and 0.9% respectively. Every other region of England increased its average energy expenditure per pupil, with schools in Inner London doing so by as much as 23.5%.
According to The Carbon Trust, energy bills in UK schools amount to £543 million per year, with 50% of a school’s total electricity cost being lighting. If every school in the UK implemented any type of energy efficient technology, over £100 million could be saved each year.
Harvey Sinclair, CEO of eEnergy, eLight’s parent company, said the figures demonstrate an uncomfortable truth for the education sector – namely that most schools are still treading water on the implementation of energy efficient technology. Energy efficiency could make a huge difference to meeting net zero ambitions, but most schools are still lagging behind.
“The solutions exist, but they are not being deployed fast enough," he said. "For example, we’ve made great progress in upgrading schools to energy-efficient LED lighting, but with 80% of schools yet to make the switch, there’s an enormous opportunity to make a collective reduction in carbon footprint and save a lot of money on energy bills. Our model means the entire project is financed, doesn’t require any upfront expenditure, and repayments are more than covered by the energy savings made."
He said while it has worked with over 300 schools, most are still far too slow to commit. "We are urging them to act with greater urgency because climate change won’t wait, and the need for action gets more pressing every year. The education sector has an important part to play in that and pupils around the country expect their schools to do so – there is still a huge job to be done."
North Yorkshire County Council is benefiting from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has so far awarded nearly £1bn for energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects around the country, and Craven schools has reportedly made a successful £2m bid (click here).
The Department for Education has issued 13 tips for reducing energy and water use in schools.