Fulfilling the Potential of Biogas in Spain

by Gabriel Butler Monterde and David Newman, Contributors

Biogas is a resource that has enormous potential in Spain and beyond. Biogas technologies convert organic wastes into renewable energy, clean transport fuel, and nutrient-rich natural fertiliser, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy and food security and air quality. A recent study commissioned by Naturgy, Spain’s largest natural gas distributor, showed a potential for 26,684 gigawatt hours (GWh) of biogas in the country, enough to cover the energy demand of 40% of Spain’s households.

However, the same study shows that there are only 300 biogas production facilities currently operational in Spain: 174 in water treatment plants, 44 in the agricultural and livestock sector, 33 in the food sector, 30 in urban solid waste treatment plants, 15 in waste management centres, and two in industry. All of these facilities use the biogas they generate to power or heat their on-site activities, with the exception of the urban solid waste treatment plant in Valdemingómez, Madrid, the only facility that also injects biogas into the gas network. This number of plants, however, is not sufficient to generate the nearly 27 GWh of biogas that Spain is capable of.

Changing Attitudes

The main reason for this under-utilisation of biogas goes back 10 years, when wind and solar energy were being promoted and incentivised in Spain but biogas was not. Spain became a world leader in photovoltaic and wind generation, but biogas did not develop at the same rate.  Subsequently, and coinciding with the 2008 economic crisis, legislation on on-site energy generation became very restrictive, with levies and obstacles imposed that made it difficult to generate electricity from biogas. A ban on generating electricity for both on-site use and for use in the electricity network, for example, created a climate of fear around investing in on-site generation. 

Luckily, this attitude is changing. It is now possible to both generate energy on-site and be connected to the network and, although specific support measures are still lacking, the current government is taking a more favourable approach to renewable energy, including biogas. Ministers recognise that biogas is critical for Spain to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement by providing not only clean and renewable energy, but other circular-economy benefits too such as effective waste management and production of natural fertiliser from digestate. 

Demand For Biogas

As a result of this change in policy support, the gas sector is now willing to buy biogas and even finance the facilities for its production. Furthermore, the automotive sector has seen a 112% increase in the demand for vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (which can be derived from biogas) despite the fact that there are only 50 gas refuelling stations in operation around the country – though this number is set to double.  

Companies such as Genia Global Energy engage regularly with the agricultural and food industries to highlight that biogas is the only renewable energy that can be used for any of the major energy applications (electricity, heat, and fuel). It is also the only one that can be stored to be used when needed regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so is better suited to respond to industry’s needs than photovoltaic or wind power. The ‘smallbiogas’ model of small-scale plants also allows farms and industries to generate their own energy from the organic wastes they produce. 

Biogas is, therefore, a market with great potential for expansion in Spain. For example, Spain has become the leading producer of pork in the European Union (EU), having fattened and slaughtered more than 50 million pigs last year. The pork industry has a problem with the contamination of soil and water by nitrogen from the slurry it produces, and so producing biogas is a very profitable alternative that largely solves the problems of nitrogen emissions and bad odours that can cause rural populations to oppose the building of large-scale pig farms. In a scenario in which electricity costs have recently soared to record highs, biogas co-generation for on-site use is a highly profitable and sustainable option for the food industry.

The Wider Context

More widely, the EU’s proposed Fertilisers Regulation, designed to significantly ease the access of organic and waste-based fertilisers to the Single Market, should help to create a profitable market for digestate in Spain and across Europe, while the Circular Economy Package will oblige Member States to introduce separate biowaste collections or recycle at source by the end of 2023, opening up huge business opportunities for food waste plant operators and the biogas supply chain.

At the other end of the biogas process, biomethane upgrading is developing rapidly. Renewable gas for both heat and transport is the current growth sector in many countries: there are now close to 600 biomethane-upgrading facilities worldwide, of which over 500 are in Europe. There’s also increasing interest in utilising carbon dioxide, which constitutes 40% of the biogas generated by the biomethane-upgrading process, for industrial use. 

There is also increasing pressure on the Spanish and all other governments to urgently ramp up their emissions reductions following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showing that governments have just 12 years to take action to keep global warming to less than 1.5°C by 2100. With MEPs having backed a net zero emissions target for the EU for 2050, Member States such as Spain will need to further develop their biogas markets to continue to reduce emissions from waste, energy, and transport.

The Potential For Biogas In Spain

Spain has a wide range of companies with the proven technological capacity to develop biogas facilities. As the national market has been practically dormant for almost a decade, Spanish companies such as Genia Global Energy have dedicated themselves to developing projects in Europe and beyond. Genia Global Energy has designed the largest biogas mono-substrate plant in Europe for Astarta in Ukraine, which feeds on the exhausted pulp of sugar beet and generates enough heat to reduce the energy requirements of the sugar production process by 75%. It has also designed the large-scale biogas production facility in Evercreech, UK that has five biodigesters, showing that the technological and management capacity to produce biogas exists in Spain and is proven.

Spain has the market, opportunities, will, and technology to make biogas happen on a large scale, making it one of the most attractive European markets in which to develop biogas projects. There’s huge potential for growth – so don’t miss out on this great opportunity to get involved with such an exciting technology.

Gabriel Butler Monterde is Chief Executive of Genia Global Energy, and David Newman is President of the World Biogas Association.

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