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Growing Biogas in North America: Three Legs of Sustainability

The transition into adopting biogas in North America is already happening today, as one can see at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh Biodigester I project. Unlike Germany, which enjoys a country-wide incentive structure set by the German government, North American countries have had to rely on visionaries who believe AD is a promising technology that is part of achieving energy independence. Some implemented projects have been supported by investors and have relied on a high organic waste tip fee to support the economic feasibility and cut down the return on investment.

In part II of her recent two part article, Ms. Meredith Sorenson discussed how North America will transition into adopting anaerobic digestion (AD) citing the planned AD installations at Richmond, BC and London, ON by Harvest Power. In addition, she noted that America could see a similar renaissance in its renewable energy cards as Germany, which serves as a model bioenergy economy.

In order to grow a sustainable biogas sector that is a long-lasting player in our (renewable) energy and waste management plan, the three legs of sustainability (social, environmental and economic) must be kept in mind. This means social, economical and environmental sustainability should be considered. Biogas plants are environmentally sustainable due to its reduction of harmful methane emissions that are otherwise generated when organics are landfilled. Socially, biogas plants support communal relationships between the waste generator, the plant and the consumer of the energy and compost products.  Economically, biogas plants have a balance sheet that supports the plant and offer a cheaper alternative to landfills.

The perfect example of a three-legged sustainability model

The University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh (UWO) has been a visionary in the adoption of anaerobic digestion technology and has implemented a sustainability model that supports social, environmental and economic factors.  It began its journey into anaerobic digestion in 2008 when it started working with Madison-based BIOFerm Energy Systems to engineer and design the first dry fermentation plant to be built on North American soil. That digester, with a capacity of 370 kW, went on-line in the fall of 2011 and now processes food and yard waste collected from the campus, local grocery stores and local farms. In 2011, UWO ventured further down the path of achieving carbon neutrality on its campus by again partnering with BIOFerm Energy Systems and Wisconsin’s largest dairy farm to build a digester that will process cow manure, and by partnering with a small dairy farm to launch the first factory-assembled compact biogas plant (EUCOlino).

The university along with BIOFerm and its parent company Viessmann Group pushed the envelope further by establishing a state-of-the-art research laboratory, the Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) that will conduct laboratory testing for determining optimal blends of feedstock to maximize biogas production for existing and new AD projects in North America.  Together with the dry fermentation plant, ERIC contributes to the education of a new work force that will design and operate America’s future digesters.

With its anaerobic digesters, the university will be able to offset a large part of its energy consumption, while keeping organic waste out of the landfill and avoiding associated methane emissions, making it an environmentally sustainable project. Socially, the university will contribute to long-lasting relationships between itself and local businesses, which include farms, grocery stores and factories. In addition, the university helps to grow a new generation that will naturally adopt organic waste separation and the idea that energy comes from renewable resources. The economic benefit will be one of the most outstanding achievements of these projects. Rather than relying on high tipping fees from its waste suppliers, the university will charge a tip fee that makes organic waste recycling a cheaper alternative to landfills and a better economic alternative to its waste suppliers.

The approach to biogas plant development and anaerobic digester market growth in the United States begins with the three legs of sustainability in order to be a long lasting factor in our (renewable) energy and waste management plan. The idea of getting rich fast, an idea that drove thousands to California during the Gold Rush in the 1840s, won’t help this industry grow in a sustainable manner.  Any project, whether it is backed by investor funds or funded by state and federal grants must remember to establish relationships with the community and create long-lasting bonds – they are of equal importance to project feasibility as the economic and environmental factors. A project client or project developer should also keep in mind that the biogas technology they select will have an impact on the overall sustainability of a project.  Factors such as performance guarantees, biological after sales support and service and maintenance agreements will affect all three legs of sustainability.

Image: noomHH via Shutterstock

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