Germans Promote Success in Biogas Production
Posted: October 22, 2010
Germany is well know for its success in encouraging adoption of anaerobic digestion for producing renewable energy (biogas) from biomass energy crops and animal manure. I recently visited several anaerobic digesters producing biogas for electricity production. Our host estimated there were 4700 biogas production facilities in Germany using harvested biomass energy crops, manure and other biomass removed from the solid waste stream.
We visited digesters that were owned and operated by single farmers, groups of farmers and even outside investors who bought feedstock from farmers. This didn’t just happen; it was the result of a national program to decrease use of fossil fuels and provide farmers with an additional source of income. There is now an infrastructure in place including a variety of supply companies and specific processes, equipment and methods available for someone interested in biogas production. Private companies and money sources supply the expertise, funding, equipment and management help necessary for the design, construction and operation of these plants.
An important reason for the development of this infrastructure was the country’s decision to positively promote biogas production by guaranteeing a buyback price for this green energy that would allow the systems to cash flow. In Germany a farmer or other landowner, the service and supply industry and the bankers know that they will receive a price for electricity that allows a well thought out and operated project to cash flow and be successful. Good old-fashioned desire to make money and competition took over and made it happen. It appears that this approach has been more successful than efforts in the US at the state and federal level to subsidize education, design and even purchase of equipment. The Germans are showing us that if government involves itself it assuring that investment in the process will payoff farmers and private enterprise can put the package together and make it work.
Another interesting feature of this method of encouraging the process is that the expenditures of public funds (rate payers buying more expensive electricity) only occurs for projects that are successfully designed, built and operated. If you don’t make gas and therefore electricity you don’t get paid. If you have a well designed and operated system you are rewarded by payment for electricity. If you figure out how to make your system more efficient then your competitors you benefit from more income. On the reverse side, if you are not successful, don’t pay attention to management and ultimately don’t produce electricity you don’t get paid.
I am sure the whole story is not as simple as this brief report makes it sound. However, the facts remain that programs that reward success and long-range production are showing good success in the development of this energy source. At this point we can not make this claim in the US for our assorted short term subsidy programs that may promote design and construction but do not pay much attention to long range success or take a proactive approach to developing a healthy service and supply infrastructure.
It does appear that the State of Vermont is having success because of interest by the ratepayers in supporting green energy. This has resulted in active power company involvement and more recently state mandated rates for green energy. Whether by taxpayer supported subsidies or increase in cost of electricity it appears that a larger group of citizens then just farmers is necessary to encourage the development of on-farm green energy production. The question is who, how and how much?
- By Dr. Robert E. Graves, professor, Penn State Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering