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By Shay Bapple on Mar 17, 2010 with 3 responses

US Government Roadblocks Private Production of Biogas

Turning manure into fuel means dealing with a lot of red tape.

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.

  1. By lmcgraw on March 17, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    As part of Shay’s research for this article, he submitted some questions
    to the EPA. Unfortunately, they did not get back to him until after
    the story was posted. The responses he received came from Dave Ryan,
    the EPA’s Washington Headquarters Press Officer.
    Bapple: How has AgStar help so far in the development of biogas projects
    nationwide? Number of projects? Projects in development?

    Ryan: AgSTAR has been involved in advancing manure biogas projects since the
    early 1990s as part of the US government’s commitment to reduce
    greenhouse gas emissions. The program has helped well over 100 digester
    projects both directly and indirectly through technical and financial
    assistance. AgSTAR has played a critical role in providing technical
    support to USDA in awarding over $40 million in grants to more than 100
    digester projects through the Farm Bill since 2003. AgSTAR continues to
    be the major national resource to the manure biogas industry by
    providing education, information, networking and support to livestock
    producers, project developers, policy makers, utilities and others
    involved in advancing these projects. AgSTAR is aware of dozens of
    currently planned or under construction across the US. AgSTAR also
    serves the worldwide manure biogas industry through the US-lead Methane
    to Markets partnership, which shares data and knowledge on methane
    capture and use with the developing world.

    Bapple: What will it take for the U.S. to get up to speed in regards to biogas
    production or closer to the level of China or Europe? Is the US, through
    government agencies and programs striving for increased biogas projects?
    Are there roadblocks?

    Ryan: China and Europe (especially Germany) have more projects than the US
    at present. While the US has approximately 150 operating digesters,
    China is estimated to have millions and Europe is in the thousands. The
    projects in China and Europe are actually quite different than those in
    the United States. The millions of projects in China tend to be very
    small household or community systems, which have been around for
    hundreds or thousands of years. On the opposite end are very large,
    industrial scale regional digesters in Europe which receive policy and
    financial assistance from the federal government level, allowing for
    extensive private investment. The US has the potential expand the
    number of projects by hundreds and possibly thousands more manure biogas
    digesters in the dairy and hog industries alone. EPA AgSTAR estimates
    that between 4,000 and 6,000 projects could be viable at dairy and hog
    operations. The AgSTAR program has been in place for 15+ years, and
    over time EPA has worked with both USDA and US DOE to advance these
    projects. The USG is committed to advancing these projects, and has
    signed an MOU between USDA and the US dairy industry to reduce their
    carbon footprint, with a cornerstone of this agreement being rapid
    expansion of dairy manure digester projects. This MOU will help address
    some of the roadblocks we see to project development including more
    targeted and coordinated financial assistance to livestock producers,
    enhanced technical assistance to project developers, and further
    education of project stake holders. There are some states such as
    Vermont that has policies and both voluntary and mandatory feed in
    tariffs that help support renewable energy projects such as manure
    digesters.

    Bapple: Is it true that one reason that biogas projects are slowed by many
    states is because anaerobic digesters can create pollution if not
    operated properly? If so, what is a fix for that?

    Ryan: The issue of project development being hampered by emissions concerns
    is not widespread. Most states realize that the overall benefits of
    managing livestock manure through anaerobic digester systems are many
    and want to support them – reduced odors, improved air quality, better
    waste and nutrient management, more productive fertilizer, opportunity
    for energy production (electricity, natural biogas, vehicle fuel), the
    use of manure solids for productive use, and an opportunity for economic
    development on the farm and in the community. The vast majority of
    these benefits actually result in a reduction in greenhouse gas and
    other air emissions, as well as provide the societal benefit of a better
    living environment. It is true that if manure digester biogas is
    combusted for energy production in certain systems, there are associated
    emissions, just as there are with any generation source. However, in
    may cases these emissions are less than those associated with typical
    fossil fuel combustion. One solution is to ensure a process for setting
    appropriate emissions levels based on scientific data and financial
    viability, taking into account the net environmental benefits that come
    with a project like a manure biogas digester. There are also technology
    solutions that are being tested at present that might hold a solution
    for some air emission issues.

    [link]      
  2. By CEA on March 19, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Biomass, Wind, Solar, Alternative, Conventional: our Nation needs ALL these things more than ever. The United States government needs to put priority in supporting long term development and research of all emerging areas of energy. Domestic energy production is key to the economic fruition of America. Instead of spending our wealth abroad for foreign resources, we have a chance to strengthen America’s energy portfolio with our own.Want to learn more about balanced energy for America? Visit http://www.consumerenergyalliance.org to get involved, discover CEA’s mission and sign up for our informative newsletter.

    [link]      
  3. By CEA on March 19, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Biomass, Wind, Solar, Alternative, Conventional: our Nation needs ALL these things more than ever. The United States government needs to put priority in supporting long term development and research of all emerging areas of energy. Domestic energy production is key to the economic fruition of America. Instead of spending our wealth abroad for foreign resources, we have a chance to strengthen America’s energy portfolio with our own.Want to learn more about balanced energy for America? Visit http://www.consumerenergyalliance.org to get involved, discover CEA’s mission and sign up for our informative newsletter.

    [link]      
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