The Potential of Poop. How to harness the powers of poop has been a topic of conversation for centuries, and although animal waste has been used as a form of agricultural fertiliser there’s a lot more waste (manure) these days and its use as an energy resource is a brilliant solution. It’s been gathering pace in Europe for over 10 years and over time around the world. One thing’s for sure, that it impacts our entire planet, our present, our future, and by default, ourselves. Today there’s a world of difference and plenty of new challenges in addressing an age-old problem. Forward thinking companies, farmers and governments have been figuring out and implementing clever solutions for the, ‘what to do… with so much poo?’ The benefits for you and I? More natural fertilisers mean more natural and nourishing crops, there’s a better use of our growing mountains of food waste, less landfill and turning animal poop into renewable energy helps reduce the planet’s greenhouse gases.
Redefining the Best Renewable Energy Resource. Although Solar power, Hydropower, Geothermal and Wind Power are perhaps the more familiar renewable energy sources. Bio-Power as a renewable energy source has recently been getting more and more attention. By comparison it has greater benefits for planet earth and its inhabitants as it uses waste. Manure and food waste provide a constant natural flow of ‘fuel’, and therefore a 24/7/365 solution. In other words it’s a resource that’s not dependent on the whim of the elements, sun, air, water nor digging up the planet to dip into its natural resources.
Bio-Power: Although we’re taking a look at an American company this week to tell the story, European countries have been on this for some while. Germany being by far the largest biogas producing country in the EU (over 10,000 plants (and the UK taking second place (1,000) (IEA Bioenergy.) But there’s a wide-ranging presence in numerous countries worldwide [WBA.] For example, the Chinese government’s recent development plan for biogas plant deployment is aiming for over 3,000 large-scale plants across China. Getting back to the subject of manure and just how much of it there is, according to ciwf.org and Statista: In the USA alone there are just over 9 million dairy cows (2 million in the UK) Europe 24 million, India has the greatest number iro 58 million and total worldwide figure is iro 100 million cattle.
The logistical challenges are a part of the collective thinking with that amount of manure, added to which, all of the burps and farts that are releasing methane into the atmosphere, are producing a potent greenhouse gas (approximately 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.) According to National Geographic, ‘About 20% of the warming the planet has experienced can be attributed to the gas.’ In case you’re wondering, we’re not going to start ‘counting our chickens’ in this particular post, cow poop is a perfect example in itself!
Greenhouse Gases. There are ways that destructive greenhouse gases (that would be escaping into the atmosphere) can be put to good use. By mixing manure (there’s plenty) with food waste (btw, much of our food waste fits the profile) in ‘digesters’ which can be used to produce natural gas. It’s an obvious expense to set up initially and to manage on an ongoing basis, but it offers a win-win for all. Tonnes of manure can be taken care of when, with clever logistical planning, it’s mixed with ground food waste from grocery shops, schools, restaurants, breweries etc. (ordinarily put into landfill.) The food waste once collected, is ground down and turned to slurry, then used in combination with manure to create (useful) methane.
Anaerobic Digesters. In simple terms that waste that is then processed in anaerobic digesters (i.e. with an absence of oxygen.) Biogas plants rely on anaerobic digestion, a fermentation process in which waste is digested by microbes to produce methane gas (biogas). The same process you or I, might use to make fermented sourdough, sauerkraut, kimchi and suchlike (yep, we make all of that stuff at home) and it’s all great for your digestive system, but we digress. To quote Power Technology, ‘The combined waste can be converted into biofertiliser and spread directly onto fields, or the biogas itself can be used interchangeably with natural gas as fuel. In other words, it can capture the methane emissions and be used to make renewable energy.’ In turn that can be partly used, for example, to power the farm where the digester is located, and the rest can then return an income by being fed into the national grid. The whole set up is more sustainable, environmentally friendly and certainly economically savvy.
Poop and Food Waste is Lighting up the World. Unsurprisingly from what we’ve written, so far in the USA (as is the case elsewhere in the world), there’s been a great deal of attention and enthusiasm about all this. A company called Vanguard Renewables are the leading the way for dairy waste and FoodWaste, organic food waste-to-renewable energy. in the north-east. Within just 5 sites, they are already recycling approximately 200,000 tons of on-farm and off-farm organics per year. As pictures speak louder than words, take a look at this ‘easy on the eye’ explanatory infographic and the youtube clip below:
Here’s a quote we received from John Hanselman, Chairman and CEO, Vanguard Renewables:
“Dairy farmers are under huge pressure, and this thought that we can take their farm manure and combine it with recycled food waste, power the farm, send power to the grid or the renewable natural gas pipeline, and then power the farm’s survival, for me, is one of the best things that we do,” John Hanselman, Chairman and CEO of Vanguard Renewables said. “When Vanguard Renewables began, we saw ourselves as a renewable energy company that happened to be located on farms. We had that wrong. We’re actually a farm-based dairy manure and food waste recycling company that happens to make renewable energy.”
Food Waste is Fuel. So before we wrap up on this topic we hope to have at least put this growing solution to a major problem on your radar.’ In a nutshell anaerobic digesters; reduce greenhouse gases, provide intelligent food waste recycling, create more natural fertilisers, support renewable energy, improve waste [manure] management, reduce landfill, reduce overheads at farms, and provide energy for the national grids and local communities. Bloomberg ran an article last week that perfectly illustrates many of those benefits as, ‘Millions of gallons of stale beer became a hangover from lockdown.’ Although as Power Technology reports, ‘Biogas production is not suitable for every location. As larger production relies on an abundant supply of waste manure or crop materials,‘ in other words it’s not so practical in urban areas and there are other small ‘corrections and improvements’ being made along the way, any of which are far outweighed by the list of benefits.
The Winds of Change. However, we feel that investment in Anaerobic Digesters for renewable energy vs Wind Turbines and Solar should be a strong if not the leading contender. First, wind only produces electricity, whereas digesters are three-fold, they can produce either renewable electricity or renewable natural gas, but also agricultural fertiliser. Digesters offer so much more in terms of environmental benefits. Also, importantly, digesters operate 24/7/365 and are not dependent on the wind (or the sun in the case of solar) so it’s a consistent renewable energy production. In the case of on-farm digesters, they help support farms that need a diversified income source to survive. Finally, food waste is such a huge issue [30%+ of food is never eaten] and of equal significance is food waste diversion from landfills. All of which should be, ‘A big motivator for governments (as many have already) to be supportive of anaerobic digesters and schemes to facilitate their large-scale deployment.’
So far, as Power Technology pointed out… ‘investment into the sector is not particularly popular with certain governments, which are instead putting money into the more developed alternatives of wind and solar.’ We’re hoping ‘the winds of change’ will favour digesters, biogas and biomethane, as a global ambition and global solution in the near future – with climate change acting as a key driver.
Please Note: This article is a personal take on Renewable Energy, ‘an introduction to the process and its potential.’ For more detailed research data and information, and/or to check the accuracy of any aspect of our post, there are links above, and any number of open resources to which you can refer. We’ll be back again next week.