Germany wants to increase its use of renewable energies for electricity production to 12.5 percent by 2010. A model project shows that biomass created from farm and factory waste can produce energy for 1,000 homes.
Compost may not smell nice, but it can create energy for thousands
Sven Nevigmann, one of the workers at the Loick biomass plant in the village of Dorsten, is looking over the operation, which is filled with swine and other animals whose manure is combined with food and other organic substances to create biomass, which in turns makes biogas that can be used for energy production. The biomass goes through several production processes here at the plant before it is ready for consumption.
Biomass projects like this across Germany are essential elements of the government's plan to increase its reliance on renewable energies – including wind and solar power – to 12.5 percent of all electricity development by 2010. In the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Loick plant is located, about 6 percent of energy production already comes from renewable energy supplies.
"I'm good eating and I can heat your home!"
"We use about 12,000 tons of biomass a year, that is about 6,000 tons of manure, pig and cow manure, and renewable biomass, and about 6,000 tons of food waste and other biodegradable biomass," said Marcel Hengst, supervisor at the Loick plant.
Fermenting the future
At Loick, manure is mixed with other organic materials that mostly come from a small company nearby that produces deep frozen vegetables. What the company can’t use in its products is then sent to Loick to make energy. It is combined with pig and cow manure that is brought in from nearby farms. Along with these products, corn grown at the plant and food waste are also fed in stages through a number of processing tanks where the organic waste products are fermented. This then produces biogas along with a rich fertilizer that is highly sought after by local farmers. In total, the fermentation process takes about 25-30 days.
"This is a single-step fermentation process," explains Hengst, "the fermentation process can be divided into four steps, and those four steps take place in the digester, a 1,000 cubic meter facility that contains a tank that degrades the biomass into valuable fertilizer and biogas." The biogras is then placed in a so-called "co-generation unit" that combines heat and power to generate electricity. The company is paid an attractive premium of about 10 euro cents a kilowatt hour for the electricity it produces from biomass.
A showcase project
The Loick plant, which is located on an operating farm owned by Hubert Loick and sponsored by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia(NRW) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology, was opened in September 2001 as a demonstration facility for biomass technology. Bernd Kunott of NRW’s Ministry of Research, says projects like Loick are important elements of Germany’s ambitious renewable energies strategy. Because it transforms waste into valuable energy, it is also innovative, he says. "There is very much waste you can use for energy purposes. This one produces energy, electricity for nearly 1,000 households with four persons."
A backhoe picks up chipped wood that is going to be used for biomass production.
Because it relies fermentation to produce its energy, biomass also has a major advantage over other renewable energy sources: it is not dependant on the sun shining or the wind blowing to produce energy. It also has great potential – the German Agricultural Ministry estimates that, across the country, more than 190 million tons of manure, along with 25 million tons of organic waste, are available for biomass production. If only 50 percent of that figure were put to the production of electricity or heat, the ministry estimates, either 1.7 million German homes could be provided with heating or the entire electricity needs for 4 million homes could be covered.
Helping farmers help themselves
But biomass is still largely in its infancy in Germany. Of the potential 200,000 biomass facilities that could be built in the country, there are currently only about 1,000. Still, for farmers like Loick, it’s an attractive proposition that can help expand the bottom line.
"A farmer can better calculate his annual earnings (by creating a biomass plant)," North Rhine-Westphalia Environment Minister Bärbel Höhn recently said. "The idea of making a farmer an energy producer is a realistic perspective."