February 27, 2012 | General

Editorial: Yes! In Our Lifetime

BioCycle February 2012, Vol. 53, No. 2, p. 4

IN early January, I traveled to Bremen, Germany, to speak about the U.S. market in regard to the anaerobic digestion industry. The workshop in which I participated was part of the German Biogas Association’s 21st Annual Meeting And Exposition (Fachverband Biogas e.V.). About 7,000 biogas plants were expected to be in operation by the end of 2011 in Germany, and the trade exposition — with over 340 exhibitors — definitely reflected a robust industry to service those facilities.
I’m still “digesting” all that I learned and saw at the conference. One of the biggest takeaways came during the tour of three biogas plants. The first digester facility was brand new, primarily using an energy crop (maize) as a feedstock. Energy crops for biogas plants are commodities in Germany, due to high feed-in tariffs built into the country’s Renewable Energies Act. (I am intentionally using the term “biogas plants” as opposed to anaerobic digesters because it seems a primary reason for their existence is to produce biogas/electricity to sell to the grid, versus, for example, to manage manure.)
But my takeaway happened during the second and third facility tours. They were described as “cofermentation” plants because they receive nonagricultural feedstocks — in this case food waste and food processing residuals, along with some other high strength organics. The two plants buy these feedstocks for an average of 10 euros/metric ton. Yes! In my lifetime, an organics recycling facility is paying for feedstocks — not charging! Why? Food waste and other high strength organics are loaded with biogas generation potential.
Over the years, we’ve heard about a few composting facilities that purchase feedstocks, but in those instances, it is typically to produce a very high-value compost-based blend. For the most part, however, organic materials diverted to composting, anaerobic digestion and/or direct utilization are considered wastes that generators pay to have managed. In this month’s Biomass Energy Outlook (page 53), Mark Jenner tackles the subject of what “waste” is. After some discussion, he went with this definition: “Wastes then are the leftover materials that are produced in such high volume that they can only be managed as a cost.” In the Germany scenario, that last part of the definition is that they can be managed as “a profit.”
What drives the value of waste in Germany is a national energy policy that has created profitable markets for renewable energy. The European Union’s landfill directive that eventually will ban any disposal of unprocessed organics is an added incentive to diversion, creating a flow of these feedstocks to composting and anaerobic digestion plants.
A national energy policy in the U.S. that institutionalizes incentives for renewable energy will not likely happen in the current political climate. And who knows if there will come a time when we have a national organics diversion policy, say, as part of EPA’s RCRA rules that regulate solid waste landfills. But if and when these “bold” steps happen, organic wastes will be commodities. I certainly hope policies like these will be adopted in my lifetime, but I’m not sure it’s a great idea to hold my breath. What I can say is that when our federal government is ready to move forward, they will find ready-to-go models, functioning and worthy of replicating, in many of our nation’s state capitals and local communities.

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