Why biomethane is set to become a new normal Independent environmental consultant Dr, Sarika Jain gives an overview of the trends in favour of the biomethane industry, and why it has the potential to replace natural gas.
Three years ago in Paris, 195 countries acknowledged and agreed on the impact of climate change and made commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate it. In order to meet these emission targets, some countries have taken steps to divest from coal and petroleum based energy and siphon that money to energy based on natural gas and renewable resources such as the sun, wind, biomass and waste. While natural gas has lower greenhouse gas emissions than its solid and liquid fossil fuel counterparts, it is still a fossil fuel which emits carbon dioxide when burnt. There are a number of technologies available today to produce renewable electricity but those for renewable natural gas are limited. This is where anaerobic digestion or biogas can play a significant role.
Biomethane is both a renewable form of energy and also has the potential to directly replace natural gas. In doing so, it can leverage existing infrastructure and the equipment. Thus, the transition from natural gas to biomethane can be gradual and seamless. Trends in favour of the biomethane industry have been noted, that indicate a further widespread use of this technology. Trend 1: Proof of technology
The biogas upgrading (also known as biomethane or renewable natural gas) industry has grown significantly in the past five years or so. There are currently 77 operating upgrading plants in the USA as compared to 41 in 2014 which is a growth of 85% in the last three to four years. These plants are upgrading biogas produced on farms, in wastewater treatment plants, or from food waste and collected from landfills. In the UK, upgrading plants have grown from 27 to 95 in the same timeframe. Europe has in excess of 500 operating upgrading plants. Similar trends have been seen in other parts of the world including China, India, Canada, Japan and South Korea. This growth of the industry proves the robustness of upgrading of biogas technology and the streamlining of systems to incorporate biomethane into existing infrastructures. Trend 2: Regulatory clarity and policy support
A few years ago, getting a connection to inject into a gas grid was a challenge due to uncertainty of regulations and policies. A significant shift has been noted in this regard all around the globe. The regulations and standards have been laid out by a number of countries along with a wide range of incentives, obligations and targets to support the growth of the sector.
Feed-in-tariffs are a commonly and successfully used financial incentive mechanism for the development of the upgrading industry. The Netherlands plans to transition to 100% renewable gas or biomethane to meet its gas needs by 2050. Similarly, France which has 47 upgrading plants in operation (as of end of 2017) has another 360 applications in the pipeline and has an eye on building 8TWh of biomethane injection capacity into the gas grid by 2023.
Recently, the UK has recommitted to incentivising biomethane via the Renewable Heat Incentive as well as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, which compels fuel suppliers to increase the proportion of biofuels in their mix from the current 4.75% to 9.75% in 2020 and 12.4% in 2032, with additional targets for waste based biofuels and caps on crop based biofuels. Sweden and Norway utilise 64% and 57% of their biogas produced as vehicular fuel, respectively, and support it via carbon and energy tax exemptions.
In Estonia, the biomethane industry is supported by the Environmental Investment Centre by making funding available to cover 30% of the cost of development of upgrading plants to developers and 35% of the cost of purchasing biomethane buses and construction of biomethane stations to local governments. Trend 3: New frontier - Liquified Biogas (LBG), Liquefied Biomethane (LBM), Biological Liquefied Natural Gas (BioLNG)
Research and innovation are an indicator of a healthy and growing industry. With the upgrading technology fairly established, what is the next thing on the horizon in the sector? Liquefied biogas/biomethane. Liquefied biomethane (LBM) is upgraded biogas or biomethane which is cooled to below -163°C using cryogenic technologies, such as reverse nitrogen Brayton cycle or mixed refrigerant cycle to liquefy it. In its liquefied form, biomethane is three times as dense as compressed biomethane (CBM).
Sweden was the earliest adopter of the technology. Lidkoping plant in Sweden has been producing LBM for vehicle fuel since 2012. Since then it has been adopted in a number of cities and countries including City of Oslo, Norway for use in City buses, and more recently, Italy. Modified engines for trucks have been available from Volvo, Mercedes, Scania, and Iveco for use with LBM. Most recently, Furetank Rederi AB, a Swedish shipping company, modified two of its ships for use of LBM.
Biomethane is an industry that is established and expanding. It not only provides renewable energy, but also mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, returns vital nutrients to the soil and promotes sustainable development. There are plenty of reasons for it to be a part of government strategies to meet emission reduction commitments, organisational growth plans, waste management strategies, energy procurement, goods distribution systems and investor portfolios for its economic, environmental and societal benefits.
This article originally appeared in the January/February edition of Bioenergy Insight. Get a free copy of the magazine here.
Dr Sarika Jain is an independent environmental consultant, with a focus on sustainability.