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Biogas And Biomethane Could Bolster The Green Circular Economy

  • Green technologies could help countries transform organic waste into energy.
  • Europe and North America are established producers, but Asia has ample growth potential.
  • Agro-industry is harnessing waste to supply national energy grids.
  • Rural farmers are well positioned to adopt micro-scale digesters.

Countries around the world are turning to biogas and biomethane to enhance their energy and food security and jump-start their circular economies. 

Biogas is produced by breaking down organic waste – agricultural, food, municipal or animal, including manure and sewage – through a process known as anaerobic digestion, while biomethane removes greenhouse gases via carbon capture. Digestate, the other by-product of anaerobic digestion, can also be used as fertiliser. 

In mid-October Titan, a Netherlands-based independent supplier of low- and zero-carbon fuels, announced that it will build and operate the world’s largest biomethane liquefied natural gas export plant at the Port of Amsterdam, which is slated to come on-line in 2025. Titan will source the biogas from BioValue, one of the largest biogas producers in the Netherlands, which is constructing a new biogas production plant adjacent to Titan’s export facility.

The Titan-BioValue project comes on the heels of the European Commission’s announcement in May that it will ramp up the EU’s biogas production from 3bn cu metres to 35bn cu metres by 2030. 

The EU kicked off its biogas push earlier this month with the Biomethane Industrial Partnership, part of the REPowerEU plan launched in May as a strategy to end the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

Global energy security

Europe and North America account for most of the current production of biogas and biomethane, and are home to some of the world’s largest producers of waste per capita, with Canada the largest producer in 2019 and the US the third largest. 

With the global natural gas market having tightened in 2021, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) expecting this to remain the case into 2023, these countries are training their sights on biogas to address energy security.

Europe’s momentum is creating global opportunities for biogas trade as well as business models for emerging markets to launch their own biogas production facilities or scale up existing projects, allowing for wider penetration across their economies. 

Argentina, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia and South Africa are part of the Digital Global Biogas Cooperation project, in which emerging markets are partnering with EU countries including Germany and Austria to import sustainable biogas and biomethane technologies from Europe, and share knowledge and experience that can upgrade local markets.

The IEA estimates that the world could sustainably produce up to 730m tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) of biomethane and cover 20% of global natural gas demand; as of 2018 it was producing 35m toe.

Asian growth potential 

The Asia-Pacific region is seen as having the greatest scope for future biogas production, with production potential estimated at more than 200m toe as of 2018, according to the IEA, including roughly 80m toe from crop residue and 50m toe from animal manure. 

Whereas Europe has the highest biogas production costs, Asia’s are the lowest thanks to low-cost feedstocks, supportive government policies and experience, with India and Thailand already producing significant amounts. 

New projects are being launched throughout the region, most notably in India, where last week Asia’s largest biomethane plant was commissioned in Sangrur, Punjab with a $27m investment by German bioenergy company Verbio. 

The plant features eight digesters with a capacity of 10,000 cu metres and will be able to process 300 tonnes per day of paddy straw, with between six and eight locations within 10 km of the plant providing 100,000 tonnes of supply. It is the latest of 38 plants that the country has commissioned since 2018 as part of its Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation scheme that seeks to harness the country’s biogas potential.

Thailand has launched a similar scheme that uses feed in tariffs to reach power-purchase agreements, with plans to add 335 MW of biogas capacity between 2026 and 2030. 

Meanwhile, Indonesia has signed a cooperation agreement with three Japanese gas companies to conduct feasibility studies on producing local biogas from palm oil mill effluent.

The Philippines, for its part, announced in August that it would construct a new 20-cu-metre fixed-dome digester in Baler, Aurora, funded by the Department of Science and Technology, that will transform the manure of ruminant animals and pigs into biogas.

Agro-industrial waste management

By using waste to generate clean energy and fertiliser, biogas offers a prime example of a circular economy that can make direct use of the increasing amounts of carbon-emitting organic waste, especially for farmers in rural areas who do not have access to centralised waste-aggregating systems and often lack reliable power supply. 

Agricultural, forestry and land use accounted for 18.4% of global emissions in 2020, while waste contributed 3.2%.

Food waste − much of which never leaves farms − accounts for 10% of emissions due to the large amount land, water and energy required for food production, according to a 2021 study by the World Wildlife Foundation and Tesco.

Brazil's National Bank for Economic and Social Development announced earlier this month that it is providing BRL44m ($8.9m), or 80% of the total investment, for a new biogas plant that will harness agro-industrial waste in the municipality of Elias Fausto. The facility is expected to produce 4.5m cu metres per year of biomethane.

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In Argentina, where livestock farming accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, at 21.6% of the total, meat-processing firm Arrabeef installed a digester at its facilities in rural northern Buenos Aires province last year. The digester fed 4000 MW of electricity back into the province’s grid in the first six months of operation.

Through a programme at the School of Agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires, the country is also set to commission three digesters in Zárate with a capacity of 12,000 cu metres to process agro-industrial waste.

Micro-digesters for rural waste

Smaller-scale biogas digesters often offer a direct way to tackle rural waste and bring power and fuel to African farmers and residents not connected to the national grid. Kenya has 14,000 small-scale digesters, while Uganda has 11,000 and Ethiopia 10,000.

Some larger countries like South Africa, which has 300 small-scale digesters, have considerable room for growth. A study by the South African National Energy Development Institute recently drew attention to this deficit, estimating that the initial demand for micro-digesters was 21,000, with a potential yearly demand of up to 50,400. 

Nigeria, which generates 32m tonnes of solid waste per year, is also beginning to show greater interest in small-scale digesters but has yet to implement a national strategy to increase uptake.

By Oxford Business Group

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