Biogas, a solution to replace Russian gas?

Given the tensions over natural gas, biogas could experience a significant acceleration against the background of the energy crisis in Europe.

From food waste, manure or specialty crops… Biogas, already popular in the face of global warming, could see a significant acceleration against the backdrop of Europe’s energy crisis. But to what extent can it help to replace Russian gas?

A renewable gas

“Green gas” is produced by the fermentation of organic material: cattle sewage, leftovers from canteens or food factories, sewage sludge, etc.

The released methane is used to generate electricity and heat or fed into the fossil natural gas grid.

It enables heating, cooking, driving (BioNGV), but unlike natural gas it is renewable and, according to the company Carbone 4, avoids 80% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Projects can be run by farmers, with huge “yurt” tanks at the heart of the farms. There are also factories that process bio-waste from a metropolis, as will be the case in Paris shortly, or even sites run by industrialists.

Biogas suffers from high production costs: the French state recently bought it 5 to 10 times more expensive than natural gas. But that’s less true since the rise in fossil gas prices.

The sector, in full development, intends to reduce costs through a numerical effect, digitization… It also advocates for the services provided: recycled waste, employment, agricultural income, fertilizer residues, etc.

Europe is looking for local gas

According to Eurostat, in 2021 the EU consumed around 400 billion m3 of gas or 23.7% of its energy needs, importing more than 45% from Russia.

Biogas supplies 18 billion m3, says the European Biogas Association (EBA). While the EU wants to do without Moscow, the sector says it is “ready to produce 35 billion cubic meters by 2030,” 10% of current needs and more than 20% of Russia’s imports.

By 2050, that potential could triple to more than 100 billion and cover 30-40% of future gas needs, according to the EBA, in a context where gas consumption will have fallen sharply in favor of electricity and energy efficiency as global warming is under control.

The EBA estimates are based on “part of the available sustainable materials” (residual and waste materials, waste water, catch crops, etc.). However, not all countries are at the same point.

Different situations

In France, biogas provides 1% of the gas consumed (2% expected in 2022). The state is targeting 10% in 2030 and the sector estimates it can reach 20%, covering all Russian imports “if support systems are stabilized”.

With this crisis, “there is a renewed appeal and we can clearly see that the work has accelerated,” notes Robin Apolit of the Union of Renewable Energies (SER). A decree was issued on Tuesday obliging gas suppliers to integrate a minimum of green gas; the SER hopes to be able to use it from 2025.

Except that gas accounts for 15% of energy in France. Frame change in Germany, where it is 26%, in Russia more than half.

The country, which has been committed to methanation since the 2000s, leads Europe with half of the methanizers. However, biogas accounts for only 1% of the gas consumed.

Its use there has been slowed down since 2014 for environmental reasons, and has also been criticized because it is based on dedicated food cultures. With the war in Ukraine, Berlin has expressed a desire to revitalize the sector, making it want to change the model.

Elsewhere, the integration of biomethane into gas networks is also being developed in Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark. In Ireland, Spain, Belgium it is still in its infancy, sometimes non-existent, as in Poland.

limits of expansion

The resource is not infinite. In France, for example, regulations already restrict the use of special crops to ensure agricultural and food security. In Germany, 14% of agricultural land is already earmarked for energy production…

This growth sometimes also leads to neighborhood problems, problems of integration into the landscape. The Wellfarm association has just written to French gas operators to alert them to animal welfare concerns, as a Senate report previously reported, “some breeders are tempted to impose a restriction on their livestock when they are looking for maximum performance in in relation to sewage”: “the cow in the meadow could become a vague memory”.

The gas world is working on other options, in particular technologies for compaction and subsequent heating of currently unusable waste. There are demonstrators in particular in the Netherlands.

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