Study identifies significant benefits to Canadian biogas development

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Picture of biogas pressure vessel and flare
"Biogas holder and flare" by Vortexrealm at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Biogasholder_and_flare.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Biogasholder_and_flare.JPG

By Maria Kelleher

 

Biogas is a “good news” sustainability story for farmers, municipalities, food processors and for quality of life and the environment. Biogas is a renewable energy technology that is on the verge of major growth in North America. It can be a source of technology transfer, job creation and rural economic development.

The reliability, flexibility, economic and environmental attributes of biogas should be recognized and supported through a suite of strong policies in all Canadian provinces. Biogas creates reliable energy regardless of the weather – in the form of heat, power, and pipeline quality gas that can be used for transportation (i.e., natural gas fueled vehicles), household heating, or industrial, commercial and institutional processes.

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Biogas is distinct from other non-hydro based renewable energy sources. It can reliably produce power during times of system peak demand, and can be stored during periods of excess power or surplus base load generation by electricity systems. In addition, biogas systems located on rural electricity distribution systems utilizing synchronous generators have demonstrated positive impacts. They provide stable voltage support in areas of voltage lag, thus improving power quality.

Other benefits of biogas generated electricity include controlled power factor, reduced line losses, improved voltage control on rural feeders, and increasing service stability of electrical supply to local homes and businesses

Destruction of harmful pathogens and methane, reduction of odours, rural grid support through voltage regulation, and the provision of reactive power, are examples of biogas benefits. In addition, it can be used in a combined heat and power configuration, as well as injected into the natural gas distribution network to offset the use of fossil fuels.

Canadian biogas study

In May, 2013, the Biogas Association contracted with Kelleher Environmental to carry out a Canadian biogas study to identify existing, available metrics which support the benefits of biogas energy. The potential for biogas production from agricultural digesters, landfill gas, digestion of source separated organics from residential and commercial sources, and from wastewater treatment plants across Canada, was estimated, as well as the energy, environmental, economic and social/community benefits of increasing biogas energy production.

 

Biogas can be converted to biomethane (also called renewable natural gas – RNG), a growing commodity in Europe, the US and Canada. It has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation, and provides a range of additional benefits.

 

A graph of contributions to Canadian biogas sources
Figure 1: Contribution of biogas sources to energy production (Mm3/year of RNG and MW).

The energy potential of the five sources of biogas energy evaluated in the Biogas Study is estimated at 810MW or 2,420 Mm3/year of RNG for all of Canada. The relative contribution of biogas to the total estimated energy generation potential value from the five major sources addressed in the study is presented in Table 1 and Figure 1.

Agriculture Landfill gas (LFG) SSO Residential SSO Commercial Wastewater Total
Electricity Production (MW) 550 95 48 54 60 810
Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) Production(million m3/year) 1,650 290 140 160 180 2,420
Contribution to Canada’s Electricity Demand 0.9% 0.2% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 1.3%
Contribution to Canada’s Natural Gas Demand 2.1% 0.4% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 3.0%

Table 1: Energy potential from biogas sources in Canada.

Realizing the full potential of biogas development would lead to development of up to 1,800 separate construction projects, with an estimated capital investment of $7 billion and an estimated economic spin-off of up to $21 billion to the Canadian economy. These construction projects could create 16,800 construction jobs for a period of one year and up to 2,700 on-going long-term operational jobs. In addition, over 100 new and expanded companies, including biogas system designers and developers, equipment suppliers, laboratories, etc., could be supported through an expanded biogas sector.

Graph of jobs from Canadian biogas project development.
Long-term operating jobs from biogas project development.

This figure does not include the many construction companies, building supply companies, mechanical and electrical contractors and suppliers who would benefit from biogas project development.

The number of estimated jobs and investment involved with development of biogas projects in each of the five sectors included in the Canadian Biogas Study are summarized in Table 2.

Agriculture Landfill gas (LFG) SSO Residential SSO Commercial Wastewater Total
Construction jobs (for one year) 10,200 2,000 1,800 1,800 1,000 16,800
On-going operating jobs 1,320 120 500 500 250 2,700
Direct capital investment ($CDN billion) $3 $0.3 $1.7 $1.3 $0.6 $7.0
Indirect economic spinoff ($CDN billion) $9.3 $1.0 $5.1 $4.0 $1.7 $21.0

Table 2: Economic benefit potential from development of biogas projects.

Barriers to Canadian biogas projects

There are a number of barriers to realizing the full potential of biogas energy. Some are common to all biogas projects and some are unique to specific waste streams.

Financing of projects is challenging due to a reported lack of familiarity with the technology by financial institutions. Many more full scale facilities need to be constructed in Canada to address this barrier. Financial institutions need to be able to “kick the tires” of existing facilities to have a comfort level that their investment is secure.

Graph of capital investment for biogas projects.
Direct capital investment for biogas projects ($ billion).

Wastewater treatment plant biogas projects are sometimes not developed to their full potential as energy generation is not seen as the “core business” of plant operating staff. When budgets are set, other capital projects generally receive more attention than biogas recovery projects.

Receiving approvals for interconnections with the electricity system are slow and expensive. Some plants simply waste energy rather than trying to sell it into the electricity grid.

Except for Ontario, feed in tariffs or revenues available for electricity from biogas facilities are not at a level which makes most biogas projects related to electricity generation economically viable.

Biogas projects related to processing of source separated organics need to compete with composting which is generally less expensive. However,the price gap between the two technologies narrows at capacities of more than 60,000 tonnes/year. This is the amount typically produced by a Green Bin program in a city of 300,000 households, or a population of 1 million. Also, low prices of natural gas present challenges for the RNG industry.

Finally, policies in provinces and municipalities across Canada are not sufficiently supportive of biogas projects. This could be changed through procurement specifications which require RNG fuelled trucks or other requirements to support production of more renewable natural gas.

The study concluded that development of biogas projects in Canada has potential to create significant benefits, including GHG reduction, as well as creating a stable, reliable, dispatchable energy source which can be used locally.

Maria Kelleher is Principal at Kelleher Environmental. This article appeared in ES&E’s March/April 2014 issue.

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