Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unsexy renewable energy technology is turned on... and will one day beat solar and wind in the UK

Anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at BV Dairy

It's not as sexy as solar power or controversial and high profile like wind power. But a 'new' form of renewable technology is going to take off this year – the first of a series of plants was commissioned this week – and eventually it will be better value for money, more reliable and even contribute more energy to the UK's needs.

Its developers are now urging the Government to match the level of support offered to other renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, through Feed-in Tariffs.

What is it? Well, unpleasant as it sounds, it's anaerobic digestion (AD) and it is a multiple-win technology that is set to revolutionise waste processing and energy generation.

AD also helps to divert waste from landfill, and reduce air and water pollution. Byproducts include transport fuel and renewable sources of soil nutrients and manures. These processes will all additionally create new employment.

The Coalition Government also believes AD can help the UK meet its climate change objectives by reducing greenhouse gases from waste and producing energy - including renewable heat - without significant land use changes.

AD makes power from the methane generated by composting organic food, sewage and crop waste without oxygen being present. As these materials are in abundant and continuous supply, it is more reliable than wind and solar power.

The National Grid has said that it believes that within 20 years, half the gas in the grid could come from this source. The gas can be burnt to make electricity and used to power vehicles too.

Pioneer plant opens

One of the first anaerobic digestion projects funded through the Government’s Environmental Transformation Fund was officially opened on Thursday.

The plant, at Staples Vegetables in Boston, Lincolnshire, one of the biggest producers of vegetables in the UK, will produce 11 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year by processing 40,000 tonnes of unusable vegetables and waste.

The digestate (what's left over after the composting) from the Staples plant will replace artificial inorganic fertiliser (which creates emissions) and be better for the soil (because of the organic matter it contains), the heat will be captured for office heating, innovative heat absorption coolers will chill the processing areas, and the electricity generated will power the plant.

Vernon Read, Managing Director at Staples says there is an additional benefit: “The project is giving us control not only over future pricing of power, but also over power security.”

There are three more Government-supported AD facilities opening this spring and over 30 in the planning stage. Some examples are highlighted towards the end of this article.

The National Grid has talked of the biogas from AD eventually replacing a significant proportion of fossil fuel gas in the mains in the future.

But before this can happen markets need to be created for the fertiliser, and for the gas as a fuel in transport. Different sectors, such as the water sector, need to be encouraged to process sewage this way. This was the subject of a Defra consultation last December, whose results have not yet been published.

AD is also subsidised through Feed-in Tariffs (FITs). In order to increase uptake, there is a study into the take-up of FITs for farm-based AD plants going on now at DECC, parallel to the review of Feed-in Tariffs and "solar farms".

Climate change minister Greg Barker believes there is "a huge opportunity" for farm-based AD but had been disappointed by the take-up so far. Developers agree and hope it will become eligible for FIT subsidies soon.

Pioneering AD plants

Because it is not yet cheap to set up. Gary Jones is the owner of a plant at Langage Farm, near Plymouth in Devon. He says that the project couldn't have happened without support from the ETF. "Due to the new concept involved with anaerobic digestion in the UK, the start up costs are very prohibitive.

″Hopefully when there are a few more established sites around the UK, the authorities concerned in the build and running of the sites have a better understanding, and good technology providers can be found locally the cost will reduce and the plants will become profitable without grant funding."

Several other exciting projects are nearing completion, funded by the Environmental Transformation Fund.

United Utilities and National Grid are expanding the already existing anaerobic digestion plant at United Utilities' Davyhulme Waste Water Treatment Works in Greater Manchester. Work is almost complete on converting 250 cubic metres per hour of biogas to grid quality biomethane. Half will be used to fuel a fleet of tankers and half injected into National Grid’s gas distribution network - sufficient to provide heating and cooking needs for around 500 homes.

In Driffield, East Yorkshire, anaerobic digestion company GWE Biogas Limited is constructing a plant to convert up to 50,000 tonnes of organic waste each year sourced from local authorities, food manufacturers and supermarkets, to generate approximately 2MW of electricity for export to the grid. The long term objective is to upgrade gas to bio-methane to supply a private heat and wire network for new housing.

Like Langage Farm, BV Dairy (pictured) in Dorset, which processes around 35 million litres of milk per year, is building an anaerobic digestion plant to process liquid waste and provide renewable electricity and heat for its site.

WRAP, with support from the Carbon Trust, is delivering the Anaerobic Digestion Demonstration Programme under the Environmental Transformation Fund particularly because of its role in cutting waste in the food chain. It's also supporting a Staffordshire-based AD project through its Advantage West Midlands (AWM) Programme, with an animal rendering and food waste collection business.

There is every reason to believe the claim of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA) in ten years' time the UK will have a mature anaerobic digestion industry.

[PS - let's see how popular this post is - with words like sexy and turned on in the heading! - I noticed my post about naked supporters of Amen Awel Tawe windfarm making a calendar is my most popular so far!]

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