Problems are connected
Waste management, the use of renewable fuels and achieving sustainable food production – these major challenges are facing cities and the surrounding countryside all over the world. Huge amounts of waste must be managed, the transport system and public transport must be expanded and function efficiently, and agriculture must produce food in a rational manner. And this is all to be done in an eco-friendly and climate-smart manner.
Mats Eklund, director of the Biogas Research Center, claims that biogas can solve these three problems. Seeing biogas only as a fuel, which we often do in Sweden, leads us in the wrong direction.
“Yes, that’s what we think. We very much want to stimulate a broader, systemic view. Biogas is an excellent fuel with benefits for the climate, but it is also much more”, he says.
The nordic model for biogas production.
These three areas are linked in the Nordic model for the production and consumption of biogas. Waste-water sludge, waste from abattoirs, and other food waste can be collected and used as raw material to produce biogas. The gas is then upgraded to vehicle fuel, which is an excellent fuel for town buses, while the biofertiliser produced as a by-product can be used as plant nutrition in agriculture. From a climate perspective, the product is preferable to both fossil mineral-based fertilisers and natural manure.
17 global goals
In other words, biogas contributes to solving several major environmental challenges, not “just” climate change.
“This model could be used all over the world, and we are seeing an interest from international actors. They have to solve problems with waste, waste-water treatment and plant nutrition anyway, often at considerable cost, and here you can almost regard biogas as something they get for free”, says Mats Eklund.
A BRC report from a few years ago showed that biogas can actually contribute to all 17 of the UN’s sustainable development goals. Some are immediate and easy to understand – climate action, responsible consumption and production, and affordable and clean energy, for example – while others are less direct. You could ask: how does biogas actually have to do with no poverty, good health and well-being, or gender equality?
“Sustainability has become a burning question, and no one can oppose it. But I’m very worried that most focus will go to administrative measures and not so much to true change. It’s often more cost-effective for companies to market sustainability than to make real changes in their business models.” Photo credit Magnus Johansson
Well, you see – small digestion chambers in African villages can produce biogas, and provide fuel for cooking and biofertiliser for crop cultivation. The consequences are that forests are under less pressure when felling is reduced, hygiene is improved when waste is managed in a sensible manner, and the risk of eye and lung diseases is reduced when the amount of smoke from open fires falls. The situation of women and children, who are often compelled to walk long distances to collect wood, is also improved when biogas is used.
Closer to home in Sweden, biogas can contribute to increased employment, a more secure energy supply, and regional development. These are just some examples.
Everything sounds just amazing - right? But the great strength of biogas – the fact that it has many different benefits – is also something of a weakness.
“Yes, unfortunately the implementation can often become rather complicated”, says Mats Eklund. “We live in a society in which different sectors are tightly separated from each other, and this makes it difficult to join different parts. The management of different issues is fragmented, and often deals with one area at a time, where the areas are far too rigidly defined. This has, for example, led to the electrification of transport being seen as the only solution to climate challenges.”
“Implementation is also more difficult since legislation and markets in several areas must work at the same time and in a coordinated way.”
Even though biogas has other weaknesses – such as a history in which no large companies with generous advertising budgets have driven development – Mats Eklund is reasonably optimistic about the future. One reason for optimism is the investment by Scania and Volvo into liquid biogas for long-distance freight transport, while another reason is a newly awakened commercial interest among private actors in producing and selling biogas.
The year of biogas
The development of biogas has historically been carried out primarily by municipalities and municipal companies – such as Tekniska verken. Several private commercial actors, such as Gasum, Scandinavian Biogas, Air Liquide and Hitachi Zosen Inova, have now established themselves on the Swedish market.
“And the Dutch company Orange Gas has recently arrived in Sweden. It has a completely new concept of filling stations that sell only fuel from renewable sources”, says Mats Eklund.
Cows, producers of biogas. Photo credit Magnus Johansson
Maybe 2021 will be the year in which the use of biogas in Sweden turns the corner. The director of BRC also mentions a major government inquiry into biogas, published in the spring of 2020. It suggested that the government should pay for the added values that biogas brings, and view it as an integral part of sustainable development in many areas. Inquiry chair Åsa Westlund (from the Swedish Social Democratic Party) has said publicly that a sustainable Sweden will only come about through increased use of biogas.
“This may be the game changer that biogas requires”, says Mats Eklund.
As researcher, he never ceases to be fascinated by the opportunities and challenges of biogas. There is a huge potential, and the systems are complex – and thus research here is both exciting and important. In the case of electrification, industry, the green movement and politicians have linked arms and agreed that it is a Good Thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may not be as exciting for the research field.
“We are trying to base our work on the perspectives of citizens, consumers and sustainability, and we emphasise values that others tend not to talk much about. Biogas for me is the Formula 1 of research.”
Translated by George Farrantz
Three questions about biogas