As the international energy industry intensifies its focus on transitioning from harmful fossil-based fuels to ’clean’ fossil-free fuels, alternatives such as green hydrogen and biogas have garnered increased interest as a practical and sustainable way to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors of industry.

Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the World Biogas Association

Once considered nothing more than a supplemental energy source, strengthened investment into clean fuels could revolutionise carbon intensive sectors such as waste management, transport, heat, and agriculture. 

One organisation heavily involved in the drive towards a greener future is the World Biogas Association (WBA), a global trade association for the biogas, landfill gas and anaerobic digestion (AD) sectors. 

Launched in 2016 at COP22 in Marrakesh by national associations from the UK, USA and Italy, and 20 founding companies, the WBA now boasts around 100 members. 

Speaking to gasworld about all things biogas, Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive, WBA, explained the role played by the organisation in global industry. 

“WBA is dedicated to facilitating the recycling of all organic wastes, crop residues and break crops through biogas globally,” she said. 

“It believes that the global adoption of biogas technologies is a multi-faceted opportunity to produce clean, renewable energy, bioCO2, and natural fertilisers while resolving global issues related to development, public health and economic growth.” 

The organisation has been heavily involved in communicating landmark developments and research across the biogas industry. In addition to its publications on Global Food Waste Management, the Global Potential of Biogas and Biogas: Pathways to 2030, the WBA has produced market reports and research on how biogas meets 9 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

The WBA is an accredited member of multiple institutions, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a partner of C40 Cities Network and GMI. 

It is also an Observer Party of the Climate Technology Centre (CTCN) and Network Advisory Board Meetings. 

How can biogas help reduce carbon emissions? 

Calling biogas a ‘win-win-win-win-win industry’, Niclas Svenningsen of the UNFCCC believes these ‘five win’s’ could help decarbonise industry through various ways. 

With methane emissions recognised as the second most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) after CO2, certain benefits of biogas are considered capable of mitigating a huge amount of methane emissions. 

Svenningsen’s ‘win’s’ are defined as: 

Win 1: Biogas allows the conversion of methane emissions into renewable fuel, avoiding 1,200 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (MtCO2e) from poor waste management (half of the Global Methane Pledge (GMP)). 

Win 2: It displaces fossil fuels, reducing their use. The anaerobic digestion (AD) industry generates more than 12,200 terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable biogas, enough to supply a third of today’s total gas demand. 

Win 3: It turns global wastes into valuable resources, establishing a circular economy that could unlock the value from the 105bn tonnes of organic waste produced each year by human activity. 

Win 4: When fully deployed the industry could create 11-15m jobs centred around developing, building and operating biogas infrastructure by 2030. 

Win 5: A highly stable energy source that can be built and used even at household scale in remote areas, in addition to offering clean-burning gas to remote communities. 

Biogas and AD’s role in the energy transition 

Referring to AD as a ready-to-use technology capable of helping decarbonise carbon intensive sectors such as waste management, transport, heat and agriculture, Morton added, “AD can produce biomethane today, sufficient to displace 32% of natural gas consumption – or 28% of coal consumption.” 

“It is unlikely that hydrogen will play a significant role within the energy mix within the next 10-15 years, and we have been warned that we only have 10 years to meet the Paris Agreement targets,” said Morton. 

Investing in biomethane could give industry the time to scale-up hydrogen infrastructure, which – in many industries – requires wholesale and expensive changes before adoption can occur. 

Biomethane can also be used to produce a more sustainable form of hydrogen called bio-hydrogen. In this instance, biomethane is capable of providing the renewable source of methane. 

Low carbon hydrogen can be produced using this method, however, by implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) it is possible to produce bio-hydrogen that actively removes atmospheric carbon from the biosphere. 

Hydrogen gas is currently around six times more expensive than fossil natural gas. With the cost of both gases forecast to become level within the next ten years, bio-hydrogen could help advance the energy transition. 

Providing the existing infrastructure is remodelled and adapted to be compatible with hydrogen, the relationship between biomethane and hydrogen can help set the foundation for a circular green gas economy. 

AD produces biogas composed of around 60% biomethane and 40% bio-CO2. When mixed, hydrogen binds with the bio-CO2 to form more biomethane – this process is known as biomethanisation. 

Scaling up biogas and infrastructure development 

Ensuring that development of the relevant infrastructure continues at or exceeds its current rate is key to accelerating the adoption of biogas and AD. 

Commenting on what the UK could be doing to assist this scaling-up, Morton said, “In 2010, the then Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalition government launched an AD and biogas strategy and action plan in response to its manifesto commitment to deliver a ‘huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion, which resulted in a significant increase in AD facilities operating in the UK.” 

“The UK Government needs to produce a renewed strategy and action plan for AD with a specific and publicly expressed target for cutting methane emissions from organic wastes through AD.” 

She also stated the need for the Government to ensure that all methane emitting organic wastes are treated through AD as the preferred disposal option. Currently just 2% of the organic wastes produced by human activity is captured and treated through AD. The remaining 98% continues to emit GHG’s when left to rot on landfill or when incinerated. 

Biogas could also help reduce emissions from the heavy transport industry

Biogas could also help reduce emissions from the heavy transport industry

Positive steps were made by UK organisations following the submission to the Prime Minister the ‘UK AD and Biogas Industry Climate Declaration’, which sets out the industry’s commitment to delivering on its potential to cut UK GHG emissions by 6% by 2030, provided the UK Government removes barriers to its deployment. 

Stating that there is ‘no silver bullet’, Morton explained that wide-spread adoption of biogas can help replace fossil fuels across multiple sectors as a renewable source of energy or transport fuel. Given its transportable nature, biomethane can also be utilised as an invaluable energy source for off-grid housing and communities. 

In its report entitled ‘The Global Potential of Biogas’, the WBA revealed that the potential to generate energy from currently available and sustainably grown/recovered major feedstocks (livestock manure, food waste, sewage, crop residues and energy crops) in the world is 10,100 to 14,000 TWh. According to the report, this energy can meet 6-9% of the world’s primary energy consumption or 23-32% of the world’s coal consumption. When used as electricity, it has the potential to meet 16-22% of the electricity consumed globally. 

If the energy is utilised as biomethane, it can substitute 993 to 1380 bcm (billion cubic metres) of natural gas, equivalent to 26-37% of the current natural gas consumed globally. 

Decarbonisation of the UK gas network is seen by the WBA as a necessity when it comes to delivering the net zero by 2050 target. 

Reducing reliance on Russian gas 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the levelling up of biogas could also accelerate the adoption of the fuel as a way to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas. 

In a statement released by the WBA, Morton reiterated the organisation’s call for European energy security to be enhanced by investing in ‘home-grown’ biomethane. 

“This new wave of support for biomethane is not only the result of the world waking up to the role of methane in warming the planet but also of the ongoing energy crisis worsened by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine,” she said. 

She also stated that biomethane from AD should be an ‘integral’ part of the UK’s energy strategy. Last year, the UK imported 24.6TWh of natural gas from Russia. With immediate government backing, Morton revealed that this gas demand could be directly replaced with home-grown biomethane within the next four years. 

Estimates have revealed that, by 2030, the UK’s AD sector could deliver 55-76TWh of biomethane – more than two to three times the amount that the UK currently imports from Russia.

With Russia’s status as a primary exporter of ammonia - a key component of fertiliser - and wheat, there have been widespread concerns over the potential for food shortages as a knock-on effect of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Calling it a ‘ready replacement’, Morton explained that digestate, a by-product of biomethane production, could help alleviate mineral fertiliser shortages.

Although a long way from replacing fossil-based fuels in their entirety, there has been a marked increase in biogas adoption across the world. At the end of 2021, biogas introduced into the Danish gas system accounted for around 25% of gas consumption, a 4% increase on 2020 levels. 

Biogas consumption in the Danish gas system

Biogas consumption in the Danish gas system

Source: Energinet

Having introduced 51 biogas facilities to its gas network since 2013, Denmark has ambitions for biogas to cover 75% of its consumption by 2030 and 100% by 2034.

In addition to the Czech Republic recently hitting a biogas milestone and the Baltics’ first biogas plant receiving automation, major advances are also being made outside of Europe.

Energy company INNIO has announced that it will build four biogas facilities in Malaysia, while WELTEC has commissioned a new biogas plant north of Tokyo, proving that - provided investment is sustained - the future of how we use heavy transport, manage our waste, and warm our homes might not be fossil, but green.