The potential of biogas in the energy transition
June 28, 2021
June 28, 2021
Biogas can provide us with a renewable energy source and reduce waste—and carbon emissions—in the process
As we continue to navigate the transition towards green energy, experts around the world are pining for sustainable solutions to powering our communities while reducing the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions being released into the atmosphere. Using renewable energy, such as power generated from wind turbines or solar cells, is a primary pillar of this process. Another source of renewable energy—one that has seen significant growth over the past few years—is biogas.
Biogas is a combination of gases that is produced when organic matter breaks down in a closed system without the presence of oxygen. One of the most common processes is anaerobic digestion. When organic matter from raw materials is put through this process, gases rich in methane are produced. These gases can then be processed and used as fuel to power vehicles, facilities, and communities—renewably.
Biogas is interesting for a couple of key reasons. Of course, the fact that it is a renewable resource is key. But it’s also about reducing waste and getting the most value out of our resources. For example, biogas can be created from municipal waste like garbage, sewage, and agricultural waste to not only produce energy but reduce the amount of material waste. Just think of Doc Brown using a banana peel to fuel up the DeLorean—it might not be an identical process, but the core ideas are similar: Let’s use the waste from our past to fuel our future.
So, if biogas can help us generate renewable energy and reduce the amount of physical waste in landfills, what can we do to increase the adoption of it?
The idea of biogas—or the idea that combustible gases can be a bi-product from decaying organic matter—is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around for centuries. However, the technology used for anaerobic digestion has improved significantly over time—and anaerobic digestion has proven to be the most efficient way of converting organic matter into energy. This evolution has given us the ability to produce and use biogas to generate electricity on a large scale, whereas we predominantly used it for small, isolated operations in the past. And more and more people are starting to catch on.
The US is one of the largest producers of biogas in the world, with more than 2,200 biogas sites in all 50 states. And that number is about to rise even higher. In 2018, investment in new biogas systems totaled $1 billion, and the industry has been experiencing an annual growth rate of about 12% each year. But where are these sites and what kind of raw materials and resources are they using to produce biogas?
Biogas can be produced using many kinds of raw materials. From food and material waste, to the organic residuals captured by wastewater treatment plants, to even manure and agricultural waste from farms, there is a lot of organic matter that we can convert to biogas—rather than bury or burn it.
More than half of biogas producers in the US are involved with water resource recovery, which of course includes wastewater treatment facilities. This is becoming more popular as experts are also trying to deal with a global water crisis. Recovering the organic matter from our wastewater not only helps to fuel a renewable energy supply, but it provides cleaner drinking water for our populations while reducing the amount of clean water lost in the process.
Biogas is interesting for a couple of key reasons. Of course, the fact that it is a renewable resource is key. But it’s also about reducing waste and getting the most value out of our resources.
Other producers of biogas in the US include farming operations, landfill gas projects, and stand-alone systems dedicated to digesting food waste. But the industry is pushing into other fields as well. For example, biogas is being used to fuel zero-emission buses (ZEBs) to impact the transportation sector in a big way. It’s also being used at food processing plants with an excess of food waste that can be used to power operations, lighting, and ventilation systems.
It’s clear that we can all benefit from the production and use of biogas, so what’s holding us back from more ubiquitous use?
For all the added benefits that biogas brings, there are still several barriers to widespread adoption. The primary culprit here is uncertainty and lack of awareness—people just don’t know enough about biogas yet. This leads to political uncertainty as parties grapple over the effectiveness and feasibility. It also leads to uncertainty over federal regulatory requirements, as well as policy inconsistencies at the federal, state, and local levels of government.
Because of this lack of buy-in at the federal level, there is a lack of awareness among investors. This brings us to the next big barrier to biogas: Cost. As always, cost is a significant factor to the adoption of new technologies—especially green technologies where people might not think the juice is worth the squeeze, so to speak. This is compounded by widely available, inexpensive natural gas, as well as correspondingly low electricity rates. The result? An immature market for green technology like biogas and a lack of willingness from decision-makers to make the switch.
If we want biogas to play a bigger role in the energy transition, we must spread awareness, draft policy, attract investors, and incentivize operators.
Where will biogas be in in our future? Well, that’s up to us—and by us, I mean energy experts around the world who are working hard to reimagine the energy remix. Green technologies like wind turbines, solar farms, and hydroelectric power plants are great, and we need to continue to adopt those wherever possible. But biogas brings some significant benefits and unique solutions to crises that we are facing on several fronts.
The climate crisis has profound impacts on our water supply, making recovery extremely important in the years ahead. Our landfill crisis has us running out of space to put our waste, to the point where some countries are dumping their garbage directly into the ocean. Biogas might not be an overarching solution, but it can help us solve some of challenges we highlighted above. And it can do so while creating renewable energy to power our homes, vehicles, and communities in a more sustainable way.