Biogas can play an important role in the switch to renewable energy, as well as reduce the agriculture sector’s carbon footprint. However, the environmental payoffs are limited without sufficient funding.
Etienne Genin is satisfied. "We use the more renewable energy than all other company locations," said the director of the L’Oreal plant in Libramont, Belgium. The global cosmetic company produces hair coloring here for all of Europe. A half-million packages roll off the conveyor belt every day, requiring 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity – the equivalent of a city with 10,000 people.
The factory’s power is supported by three gas motors just a few hundred meters from a half-dozen fermenters where organic material is collected to rot. L’Oreal has been using biogas here for the last few years. It’s important that "only those products are used that aren’t also used in food production," Genin said. He fears that could negatively impact the French cosmetic giant’s image.
Chocolate left over for heat and electricity
Bacteria breaks down the material in the domed fermenters. Most of it comes from the agricultural and food industries, such as leftovers from a Belgian chocolate factory, starch and grain production, or animal feed. The plant here is able to cover 60 percent of its heating and steam needs with biogas.
The total energy generated exceeds the plant’s demands by 250 percent. Derived largely from waste and efficiently used, it pays to feed the excess to the public grid. Belgian pays a green bonus on top of the normal price, meaning the biogas surplus can be sold for 17 to 18 euro cents (19 to 20 cents) per kilowatt hour.
Examples like this are, however, the exception. Biogas plants have increased more than 18 percent in the last year – surpassing 17,000, according to the EBA (European Biogas Association). This expansion, however, is mostly limited to Great Britain, France and Belgium.
No progress in Luxemburg
In neighboring Luxemburg, there’s been little movement since 2008. At just 14 euro cents per kilowatt hour, biogas plants are hardly competitive, even when sold additionally to a local school and shopping center, as is the case for the biogas cooperative, Atert, based in Redange.
Some of the 29 producers from western Luxemburg, which founded the cooperative in 2003, are no longer apart, noted Emile Kieffer, a farmer and Atert founding member. "We use as much as 80 percent manure," he said. The ecological advantage is that the bacteria can break down harmful compounds such as ammonia and nitrate.
Not far away, a biogas plant in the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate takes in mostly manure to heat a large social services operation, saving 300,000 liters of heating oil per year. "After fermentation, the material is significantly less harmful to plants and the environment," said farmer and managing director, Hans-Josef Götten.
There’s no smell and it can serve as fertilizer. "Neighbors take it from me for their tomatoes," he added.
Luxemburg won’t hit its climate targets
Fernand Etgen, Luxemburg’s agriculture minister, would like to see an annual increase from 10 to 50 percent of manure used for biogas production. Yet a concrete plan has thus far failed to materialize. "We probably won’t hit our climate targets," he said.
Luxemburg pledged to derive 11 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. In 2015, this number was under 4 percent.
Even in Germany, the future of biogas is uncertain. Germany's parliament reformed the renewable energy sources act (EEG) in the beginning of July, which promises to subsidize electricity from biogas beginning in 2017. However, critics say a subsidy of 14 to 16 euro cents per kilowatt hour was far too low to make it economically viable.
Ecological alternatives, unused potential
"The new EEG is counterproductive because it puts business under too much pressure, for no raw material other than corn is competitive enough," said Ulrike Höfken, environment minister for Rhineland-Palatinate.
Corn produces more biogas than any other organic, but is also in high demand for food and animal feed.
Under the EEG, only 50 percent of corn is allowed for biogas production. Other raw materials are grown exclusively for biogas and therefore in smaller quantities and at higher prices. Manure remains a strong alternative rich with potential, and 20 percent of it gets used in Germany, the Green Party politician Höfken said.
For stable energy reform
The EU hasn’t provided any biogas targets for after 2020, however this type of energy plays an important role in that it isn’t weather dependent like wind and solar energy. The buffer afforded by biogas provides the EU an additional option for successful comprehensive energy reform. This is especially so in conjunction with biomethane, which can be an alternative to natural gas and used for the transport sector.