Biogas from Crop Wastes versus Energy Crops: European Perspectives

Most, if not all of Europe has a suitable climate for biogas production. The specific type of system depends on the regional climate. Regions with harsher winters may rely more on animal waste and other readily available materials compared to warmer climates, which may have access to more crop waste or organic material.

biogas-crop

Regardless of suitability, European opinions vary on the most ethical and appropriate materials to use for biogas production. Multiple proponents argue biogas production should be limited to waste materials derived from crops and animals, while others claim crops should be grown with the intention of being used for biogas production.

Biogas Production From Crops

Europeans in favor of biogas production from crops argue the crops improve the quality of the soil. Additionally, they point to the fact that biogas is a renewable energy resource compared to fossil fuels. Crops can be rotated in fields and grown year after year as a sustainable source of fuel.

Extra crops can also improve air quality. Plants respire carbon dioxide and can help reduce harmful greenhouse gasses in the air which contribute to global climate change.

Energy crops can also improve water quality because of plant absorption. Crops grown in otherwise open fields reduce the volume of water runoff which makes it to lakes, streams and rivers. The flow of water and harmful pollutants is impeded by the plants and eventually absorbed into the soil, where it is purified.

Urban residents can also contribute to biogas production by growing rooftop or vertical gardens in their homes. Waste from tomatoes, beans and other vegetables is an excellent source of biogas material. Residents will benefit from improved air quality and improved water quality as well by reducing runoff.

Proponents of biogas production from crops aren’t against using organic waste material for biogas production in addition to crop material. They believe crops offer another means of using more sustainable energy resources.

Biogas Production From Agricultural Waste

Opponents to growing crops for biogas argue the crops used for biogas production degrade soil quality, making it less efficient for growing crops for human consumption. They also argue the overall emissions from biogas production from crops will be higher compared to fossil fuels.

Growing crops can be a labor-intensive process. Land must be cleared, fertilized and then seeded. While crops are growing, pesticides and additional fertilizers may be used to promote crop growth and decrease losses from pests. Excess chemicals can run off of fields and degrade the water quality of streams, lakes and rivers and kill off marine life.

Once crops reach maturity, they must be harvested and processed to be used for biogas material. Biogas is less efficient compared to fossil fuels, which means it requires more material to yield the same amount of energy. Opponents argue that when the entire supply chain is evaluated, biogas from crops creates higher rates of emissions and is more harmful to the environment.

Agricultural residues, such as rice straw, are an important carbon source for anaerobic digestion

In Europe, the supply chain for biogas from agricultural waste is more efficient compared to crop materials. Regardless of whether or not the organic waste is reused, it must be disposed of appropriately to prevent any detrimental environmental impacts. When crop residues are used for biogas production, it creates an economical means of generating useful electricity from material which would otherwise be disposed of.

Rural farms which are further away from the electric grid can create their own sources of energy through biogas production from agriculture wastes as well. The cost of the energy will be less expensive and more eco-friendly as it doesn’t have the associated transportation costs.

Although perspectives differ on the type of materials which should be used for biogas production, both sides agree biogas offers an environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to using fossil fuels.

Role of Biomass Energy in Rural Development

Biomass energy systems not only offer significant possibilities for clean energy production and agricultural waste management but also foster sustainable development in rural areas. The increased utilization of biomass energy will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

biomass-bales

Biomass energy has the potential to modernize the agricultural economy and catalyze rural development. The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small, medium and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development.

Sustainable harvesting practices remove only a small portion of branches and tops leaving sufficient biomass to conserve organic matter and nutrients. Moreover, the ash obtained after combustion of biomass compensates for nutrient losses by fertilizing the soil periodically in natural forests as well as fields.

Planting of energy crops on abandoned agricultural lands will lead to an increase in species diversity. The creation of structurally and species diverse forests helps in reducing the impacts of insects, diseases and weeds. Similarly the artificial creation of diversity is essential when genetically modified or genetically identical species are being planted.

Improvements in agricultural practices promises to increased biomass yields, reductions in cultivation costs, and improved environmental quality. Extensive research in the fields of plant genetics, analytical techniques, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) will immensely help in increasing the energy potential of biomass feedstock.

Rural areas are the preferred hunting ground for the development of biomass sector worldwide. By making use of various biological and thermal processes (anaerobic digestion, combustion, gasification, pyrolysis), agricultural wastes can be converted into biofuels, heat or electricity, and thus catalyzing sustainable development of rural areas economically, socially and environmentally.

Biomass energy can reduce 'fuel poverty' in remote and isolated communities

Biomass energy can reduce ‘fuel poverty’ in remote and isolated communities

A large amount of energy is utilized in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, wheat and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fueled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs.

There are many areas in India where people still lack access to electricity and thus face enormous hardship in day-to-day lives. Biomass energy promises to reduce ‘fuel poverty’ commonly prevalent among remote and isolated communities.  Obviously, when a remote area is able to access reliable and cheap energy, it will lead to economic development and youth empowerment.

Resource Base for Second-Generation Biofuels

Second-generation biofuels, also known as advanced biofuels, primarily includes cellulosic ethanol. The resource base for the production of second-generation biofuel are non-edible lignocellulosic biomass resources (such as leaves, stem and husk) which do not compete with food resources. The resource base for second-generation biofuels production is broadly divided into three categories – agricultural residues, forestry wastes and energy crops.

second-generation-biofuels

Agricultural Residues

Agricultural (or crop) residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy.

Sugarcane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilised while peanuts leave shells. All these lignocellulosic materials can be converted into biofuels by a wide range of technologies.

Forestry Biomass

Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass energy. Harvesting in forests may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for production of cellulosic ethanol.

Biomass harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

Energy Crops

Energy crops are non-food crops which provide an additional potential source of feedstock for the production of second-generation biofuels. Corn and soybeans are considered as the first-generation energy crops as these crops can be also used as the food crops. Second-generation energy crops are grouped into grassy (herbaceous or forage) and woody (tree) energy crops.

Grassy energy crops or perennial forage crops mainly include switchgrass and miscanthus. Switchgrass is the most commonly used feedstock because it requires relatively low water and nutrients, and has positive environmental impact and adaptability to low-quality land. Miscanthus is a grass mainly found in Asia and is a popular feedstock for second-generation biofuel production in Europe.

Woody energy crops mainly consists of fast-growing tree species like poplar, willow, and eucalyptus. The most important attributes of these class species are the low level of input required when compared with annual crops. In short, dedicated energy crops as feedstock are less demanding in terms of input, helpful in reducing soil erosion and useful in improving soil properties.

Biomethane Industry in Europe

Biomethane is a well-known and well-proven source of clean energy, and is witnessing increasing demand worldwide, especially in European countries. Between 2012 and 2016, more than 500 biomethane production plants were built across Europe which indicates a steep rise of 165 percent. The main reasons behind the growth of biomethane industry in Europe is increasing interest in industrial waste-derived biogas sector and public interest in biogas.  Another important reason has been the guaranteed access to gas grid for all biomethane suppliers.

Biomethane production in Europe has swiftly increased from 752 GWh in 2011 to 17,264 GWh in 2016 with Germany being the market leader with 195 biomethane production plants, followed by United Kingdom with 92 facilities. Biogas generation across Europe also witnessed a rapid growth of 59% during the year 2011 and 2016. In terms of plant capacities, the regional trend is to establish large-scale biomethane plants.

Sources of Biomethane in Europe

Landfill gas and AD plants (based on energy crops, agricultural residues, food waste, industrial waste and sewage sludge) are the major resources for biomethane production in Europe, with the predominant source being agricultural crops (such as maize) and dedicated energy crops (like miscanthus). In countries, like Germany, Austria and Denmark, energy crops, agricultural by-products, sewage sludge and animal manure are the major feedstock for biomethane production. On the other hand, France, UK, Spain and Italy rely more on landfill gas to generate biomethane.

A large number of biogas plants in Europe are located in agricultural areas having abundant availability of organic wastes, such as grass silage and green waste, which are cheaper than crops. Maize is the most cost-effective raw material for biomethane production. In many parts of Europe, the practice of co-digestion is practised whereby energy crops are used in combination with animal manure as a substrate. After agricultural biogas plants, sewage sludge is one of the most popular substrates for biomethane production in Europe.

Biomethane Utilization Trends in Europe

Biomethane has a wide range of applications in the clean energy sector. In Europe, the main uses of biomethane include the following:

  1. Production of heat and/or steam
  2. Power generation and combined heat and power production(CHP)
  3. Replacement for natural gas (gas grid injection)
  4. Replacement for compressed natural gas & diesel – (bio-CNG for use as transport fuel)
  5. Replacement for liquid natural gas – (bio-LNG for use as transport fuel)

Prior to practically all utilization options, the biogas has to be dried (usually through application of a cooling/condensation step). Furthermore, elements such as hydrogen sulphide and other harmful trace elements must be removed (usually trough application of an activated carbon filter) to prevent adverse effects on downstream processing equipment (such as compressors, piping, boilers and CHP systems).

biomethane-transport

Biomethane is getting popularity as a clean vehicle fuel in Europe. For example, Germany has more than 900 CNG filling stations, with a fleet of around 100,000 gas-powered vehicles including cars, buses and trucks. Around 170 CNG filling stations in Germany sell a blend mixture of natural gas and biomethane while about 125 filling stations sell 100% biomethane from AD plants.

Barriers to Overcome

The fact that energy crops can put extra pressure on land availability for cultivation of food crops has led many European countries to initiate measures to reduce or restrict biogas production from energy crops. As far as waste-derived biomethane is concerned, most of the EU nations are phasing out landfill-based waste management systems which may lead to rapid decline in landfill gas production thus putting the onus of biomethane production largely on anaerobic digestion of food waste, sewage sludge, industrial waste and agricultural residues.

The high costs of biogas upgradation and natural gas grid connection is a major hurdle in the development of biomethane sector in Eastern European nations. The injection of biomethane is also limited by location of suitable biomethane production facilities, which should ideally be located close to the natural gas grid.  Several European nations have introduced industry standards for injecting biogas into the natural gas grid but these standards differ considerably with each other.

Another important issue is the insufficient number of biomethane filling stations and biomethane-powered vehicles in Europe. A large section of the population is still not aware about the benefits of biomethane as a vehicle fuel. Strong political backing and infrastructural support will provide greater thrust to biomethane industry in Europe.

A Glance at Woody Biomass Resources

Woody biomass resources range from corn kernels to corn stalks, from soybean and canola oils to animal fats, from prairie grasses to hardwoods, and even include algae. Woody biomass may be used for energy production at different scales, including large-scale power generation, CHP, or small-scale thermal heating projects. Some of the major sources of woody biomass are being discussed in the following paragraphs:

 

Pulp and Paper Industry Residues

The largest source of energy from wood is the waste product from the pulp and paper industry called black liquor. Logging and processing operations generate vast amounts of biomass residues. Wood processing produces sawdust and a collection of bark, branches and leaves/needles. A paper mill, which consumes vast amount of electricity, utilizes the pulp residues to create energy for in-house usage.

Forest Residues

Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass for energy. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for bioenergy.

Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

Agricultural or Crop Residues

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy.

Energy Crops

Dedicated energy crops are another source of woody biomass for energy. These crops are fast-growing plants, trees or other herbaceous biomass which are harvested specifically for energy production. Rapidly-growing, pest-tolerant, site and soil-specific crops have been identified by making use of bioengineering. For example, operational yield in the northern hemisphere is 10-15 tonnes/ha annually. A typical 20 MW steam cycle power station using energy crops would require a land area of around 8,000 ha to supply energy on rotation.

Miscanthus-Elephant-Grass

Herbaceous energy crops are harvested annually after taking two to three years to reach full productivity. These include grasses such as switchgrass, elephant grass, bamboo, sweet sorghum, wheatgrass etc. Short rotation woody crops are fast growing hardwood trees harvested within five to eight years after planting. These include poplar, willow, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore.

Industrial crops are grown to produce specific industrial chemicals or materials, e.g. kenaf and straws for fiber, and castor for ricinoleic acid. Agricultural crops include cornstarch and corn oil soybean oil and meal wheat starch, other vegetable oils etc. Aquatic resources such as algae, giant kelp, seaweed, and microflora also contribute to bioenergy feedstock.

Urban Wood Wastes

Such waste consists of lawn and tree trimmings, whole tree trunks, wood pallets and any other construction and demolition wastes made from lumber. The rejected woody material can be collected after a construction or demolition project and turned into mulch, compost or used to fuel bioenergy plants.

Feedstock for AD Plants

Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas. Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion.

Biogas_Plant

Anaerobic digestion is particularly suited to wet organic material and is commonly used for effluent and sewage treatment.  This includes biodegradable waste materials such as waste paper, grass clippings, leftover food, sewage and animal waste. Large quantity of waste, in both solid and liquid forms, is generated by the industrial sector like breweries, sugar mills, distilleries, food-processing industries, tanneries, and paper and pulp industries. Poultry waste has the highest per ton energy potential of electricity per ton but livestock have the greatest potential for energy generation in the agricultural sector.

Agricultural Feedstock

Community-Based Feedstock

  • Organic fraction of MSW (OFMSW)
  • MSW
  • Sewage sludge
  • Grass clippings/garden waste
  • Food wastes
  • Institutional wastes etc.

 Industrial Feedstock

  • Food/beverage processing
  • Dairy
  • Starch industry
  • Sugar industry
  • Pharmaceutical industry
  • Cosmetic industry
  • Biochemical industry
  • Pulp and paper
  • Slaughterhouse/rendering plant etc.

Anaerobic digestion is particularly suited to wet organic material and is commonly used for effluent and sewage treatment. Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion process. This includes biodegradable waste materials such as waste paper, grass clippings, leftover food, sewage and animal waste. The exception to this is woody wastes that are largely unaffected by digestion as most anaerobic microorganisms are unable to degrade lignin.

Anaerobic digesters can also be fed with specially grown energy crops such as silage for dedicated biogas production. A wide range of crops, especially C-4 plants, demonstrate good biogas potentials. Corn is one of the most popular co-substrate in Germany while Sudan grass is grown as an energy crop for co-digestion in Austria. Crops like maize, sunflower, grass, beets etc., are finding increasing use in agricultural digesters as co-substrates as well as single substrate.

A wide range of organic substances are anaerobically easily degradable without major pretreatment. Among these are leachates, slops, sludges, oils, fats or whey. Some wastes can form inhibiting metabolites (e.g.NH3) during anaerobic digestion which require higher dilutions with substrates like manure or sewage sludge. A number of other waste materials often require pre-treatment steps (e.g. source separated municipal organic waste, food residuals, expired food, market wastes and crop residues).