How food waste can reduce our dependence on natural gas
At a large industrial plant not far south-west of Ireland’s capital Dublin, a man says old food waste and pig manure can help Europe fight climate change – and reduce its dependence on Russia for energy. Billy Costello explains that decaying organic matter releases biogas that companies like Green Generation, which he runs, can collect and purify to produce methane, or biomethane as it’s called when it comes from such sources.
It’s an opportunity to find sources of energy other than the natural gas supplied by Russia and thereby distance ourselves from Vladimir Putin’s regime, he argues: “The best thing is if you can make the gas, fill it up and replace Putin.”
European governments have been facing a difficult scenario since Russia started invading Ukraine by imposing sanctions on Putin’s regime and wealthy businessmen close to him while continuing to buy millions of dollars of gas from Russia every day. Europe gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia, and some countries have been reluctant to follow the US in imposing an import ban on Russian fossil fuels.
For this reason, the European Commission recently decided to set new, ambitious targets for biomethane production and other fuel sources in Europe. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement: “We must become independent of Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”
It means replacing around 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian gas with gas from other sources and also using a variety of alternative energies. The Commission hopes that biomethane can replace the equivalent of 35 billion cubic meters by 2030, a more than tenfold increase from today’s European biomethane production of only about 3 billion cubic metres.
At Green Generation’s facility, stale groceries from a supermarket chain, manure from a nearby pig farm and other waste are hoisted into a giant anaerobic digester. Costello has a number of buyers for the biomethane it produces from this system, including customers in the UK who use it in gas-powered road vehicles.
Biomethane, which is chemically identical to natural gas, can also be burned to generate electricity or piped to domestic boilers via a gas network. About half of the biomethane consumed in Europe in 2015 was used to heat residential buildings.
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However, there are two key differences between natural gas and biomethane. First, capturing from decaying materials prevents the direct release of methane that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. This is important because methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20-year period. When burned, biomethane only releases carbon that was already in circulation, while natural gas, being a fossil fuel, releases carbon that would otherwise have been trapped underground.
Second, biomethane can be produced in many more places than natural gas, meaning countries can avoid having to rely on those with fossil fuel reserves.