The combination of economic sanctions and supply shutoffs have driven energy prices to all-time highs in mainland Europe, especially for natural gas. With winter approaching, projections are that energy and fuel prices will rise further, creating significant hardship for low- and middle-income Europeans. While the short-term outlook is dire, it has accelerated planning by the EU to ensure long-term energy security. Central to those plans is a concerted effort to boost renewable natural gas (RNG) production 10-fold via anaerobic digestion of municipal and agricultural organic waste streams.
According to the European Commission, EU consumption of natural gas is approximately 13.9 billion mmbtu per year, or the equivalent energy content of almost 100 billion gallons of petroleum. Of this total, nearly half (6.5 billion mmbtu) was coming from Russia, leaving a huge supply gap to overcome in the short to medium term. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, the EU has scrambled to develop plans to overcome this deficit. One goal under the REPowerEU plan is to boost domestic biomethane production to 1.3 billion mmbtu per year by 2030 by generating fuel from a significant portion of the 2.3 billion tons of organic wastes in Europe via anaerobic digestion — a 10-fold increase from current production.
These ambitions were on full display over the summer at the World Biogas Summit in Birmingham, England. Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission, presented a concrete plan for the rapid rollout of biogas across the European Union to replace up to a quarter of the continent’s current gas imports from Russia by 2030. “Let me stress on this occasion that I see a huge potential for biomethane development – including in Ukraine – as part of the reconstruction effort and that the EU will support these developments in the months and years to come.”
Deputy Special Envoy for Climate to the US Government Rick Duke, who participated virtually, singled out the production and use of biogas as a critical strategy to reduce methane emissions and prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. “It’s my hope that biogas continues to grow in prominence as a valuable near-term solution to methane emissions reductions and to deliver all of these important co-benefits,” he said.
Duke underscored the benefits of biogas for economic development and livelihoods are numerous for both local health and increased access to cooking fuels. “If all organic waste were converted into biogas and used to generate electricity, it could meet about one-fifth of global electricity consumption.” By removing carbon dioxide, moisture, and other impurities from biogas, it can be upgraded to biomethane, which can be used in all the same applications as conventional natural gas. It could substitute for more than a quarter of current natural gas consumption.
While acknowledging that these were aspirational figures, Duke noted that even capturing 10% of this potential would support energy and climate security goals. Based on current estimates, the world is only tapping into about 2% of the total potential for anaerobic digestion. Furthermore, the use of “digestate” – the liquid and solid residuals that remain post-digestion – as a soil amendment can replace about 6% of inorganic fertilizer currently in use, especially at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to serious fertilizer shortages and food scarcity worldwide.