US Government Roadblocks Private Production of Biogas
Anybody with a working sense of smell probably would think twice about journeying through a field full of cow dung or a compost heap at all costs. But the secret to generating cheap electricity could be lying within those not so olfactory friendly confines. Despite the efforts of methane harvesters, there have been roadblocks along the way.
In the United States, the harvesting of bio methane gas for electricity generation has been a slow moving process. Even with programs like the U.S. EPA’s AGStar program, that promotes and educates energy producers in the process of producing biogas, the rest of the world is still ahead of the United States. The numbers are not even close.
Currently, the United States, has roughly 150 biogas generators operating, mostly in rural areas. This pales in comparison to 8,000 projects being funded by the European Union and an estimated 8 to 17 million anaerobic methane digesters in China, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
One explanation for the discrepancy in project numbers between the U.S. and other countries is their disparity in the cost of producing electricity through alternate means. The high costs of producing electricity in Europe through more traditional methods provide economic justification for bio methane gas production. Domestically, however, some farmers do not want to harvest methane because of the high costs to produce, store and transport the bi-product of the waste for burning.
In the case of John Fiscalini, whose farm is located just outside of Modesto, Calif, politics get in the way of generating biogas. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Fiscalini has enough manure for his anaerobic digesters to supply enough methane to power his entire 530-acre farm, his cheese factory and an additional 200 homes. California Air Quality Control regulators will not issue a license for the digester, claiming that it creates high of levels of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons in the recovery process.
While biogas burning is considered carbon dioxide neutral and is not supposed to yield additional greenhouses gases that normal fossil fuels would, improperly recovered biogases can contribute up to 20 percent more greenhouses gases than if methane is combusted normally.
The process of harvesting biogas consists of collecting any organic waste, usually manure, and dropping it through an inlet tube that leads to an underground dome or tank. When bacteria eats away at the sludge, a bi-product of methane and carbon dioxide is produced and the gas is gathered through an outlet tube of the tank. From there, the gas is compressed and stored for burning.
Some argue that the need for more biogas digesters is necessary because they make good use of organic wastes, create fertilizer from the residue and can run cooking, heating, gas lighting and gas powered engines. The process does not require that aseptic conditions exist, the risk of explosion is less than that of pure methane and that anaerobic digestion inactivates pathogens and parasites thereby reducing the number of water born diseases.
A study of E3 Biofuels conducted by energy expert and writer, Robert Rapier, tested the ability of the company to produce enough bio-methane to power their entire plant. Their biogas system consisted of: Growing corn, producing ethanol, feeding the byproducts to the cows, harvest, and produce methane from the manure, use the methane to fuel the boilers and then use the remaining residue as fertilizer. Rapier found that even after carrying out all of those processes, additional gas had to be used to power the plant. Rapier noted, however, that the process used significantly less fossil fuel than a grain ethanol plant.
At this juncture though, Fiscalini and others who hope to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels by producing their own bio-methane need to wait for air quality control regulators to approve those projects.