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?
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?
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.