Biogas, sometimes called renewable natural gas, could be part of the solution for providing people in rural areas with reliable, clean and cheap energy. In fact, it could provide various benefits beyond clean fuel as well, including improved sanitation, health and environmental sustainability.
What Is Biogas?
Biogas is the high calorific value gas produced by anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes. Biogas can come from a variety of sources including organic fraction of MSW, animal wastes, poultry litter, crop residues, food waste, sewage and organic industrial effluents. Biogas can be used to produce electricity, for heating, for lighting and to power vehicles.
Using manure for energy might seem unappealing, but you don’t burn the organic matter directly. Instead, you burn the methane gas it produces, which is odorless and clean burning.
Biogas Prospects in Rural Areas
Biogas finds wide application in all parts of the world, but it could be especially useful to developing countries, especially in rural areas. People that live in these places likely already use a form of biomass energy — burning wood. Using wood fires for heat, light and cooking releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The smoke they release also has harmful health impacts, particularly when used indoors. You also need a lot to burn a lot of wood when it’s your primary energy source. Collecting this wood is a time-consuming and sometimes difficult as well as dangerous task.
Many of these same communities that rely on wood fires, however, also have an abundant supply of another fuel source. They just need the tools to capture and use it. Many of these have a lot of dung from livestock and lack sanitation equipment. This lack of sanitation creates health hazards.
Turning that waste into biogas could solve both the energy problem and the sanitation problem. Creating a biogas system for a rural home is much simpler than building other types of systems. It requires an airtight pit lined and covered with concrete and a way to feed waste from animals and latrines into the pit. Because the pit is sealed, the waste will decompose quickly, releasing methane.
This methane flows through a PCV pipe to the home where you can turn it on and light on when you need to use it. This system also produces manure that is free of pathogens, which farmers can use as fertilizer.
A similar but larger setup can provide similar benefits for urban areas in developing countries and elsewhere.
Benefits of Biogas
Anaerobic digestion systems are beneficial to developing countries because they are low-cost compared to other technologies, low-tech, low-maintenance and safe. They provide reliable fuel as well as improved public health and sanitation. Also, they save people the labor of collecting large amounts of firewood, freeing them up to do other activities. Thus, biomass-based energy systems can help in rural development.
Biogas also has environmental benefits. It reduces the need to burn wood fires, which helps to slow deforestation and eliminates the emissions those fires would have produced. On average, a single home biogas system can replace approximately 4.5 tons of firewood annually and eliminate the associated four tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Biogas is also a clean, renewable energy source and reduces the need for fossil fuels. Chemically, biogas is the same as natural gas. Biogas, however, is a renewable fuel source, while natural gas is a fossil fuel. The methane in organic wastes would release into the atmosphere through natural processes if left alone, while the greenhouse gases in natural gas would stay trapped underground. Using biogas as a fuel source reduces the amount of methane released by matter decomposing out in the open.
What Can We Do?
Although biogas systems cost less than some other technologies, affording them is often still a challenge for low-income families in developing countries, especially in villages. Many of these families need financial and technical assistance to build them. Both governments and non-governmental organizations can step in to help in this area.
Once people do have biogas systems in place though, with minimal maintenance of the system, they can live healthier, more comfortable lives, while also reducing their impacts on the environment.