There are numerous debates on Europe’s energy security and fears of over-dependence on Russia’s gas imports. The most popular fear is that Russia is increasingly imposing its energy imperialism onto Europe via its bilateral deals with EU countries. As a result Europe is increasingly looking to renewable energy in order to increase energy security and foster local renewable businesses and innovation. That said most renewables are known to be intermittent, expensive and unreliable. However recent improvements in biogas generation by the Berkerley Lab in the US, have proven that biogas may become the best energy option among for the future.
As long as there is life, there will always be biogas. Biogas is not the same as natural gas or shale gas. It is a renewable energy coming from fermenting plant, animal and human waste. The process of rotting creates methane, which then can be burnt as gas straight away, converted to electricity or stored and transported in large gas canisters. The benefits of this process are three fold: It can provide a solution to sanitation as it uses the abundance of wastewater and rotting foods a community produces. Anaerobic digestion produces both a renewable fuel source- methane as well as turning the organic waste into nitrogen rich fertilizer. In a time when topsoil is being destroyed by intensive agricultural processes, this fertilizer can be sold on as a more organic alternative to chemical fertilizers. These anaerobic digesters can also be scaled down to serve small and remote agricultural communities that desperately need solutions to sanitation, energy and improved crop yields.
What is unique about the innovations in microgrid technology called FuelCell Energy by the Berkeley Lab at the University of Wisconsin is that it can ‘seamlessly disconnect itself from the grid and function as an island and then reconnect.’ These energy batteries are run by cells that generate constant energy 24/7, while being very low in emissions, quiet, and more efficient than any other energy source. After a decade of research, the lab has invented these Fuelcells that provide biogas to large buildings like hotels, universities and prisons. Most recently, FuelCell is planning to provide biogas from wastewater to power the Microsoft labs in Wyoming. The US Department of Defense is already interested in this clean energy, which would also provide energy security as the cells can work completely independently. The US’s recent developments in biogas have a lot to teach Europe.
The Supergrid is the most recent example of Europe’s increasing efforts to become more energy interconnected. It has constructed a large undersea network of cables in order to best exploit each country’s renewable energy capabilities. The Supergrid’s goal is to be “the electricity transmission backbone of Europe’s decarbonised power sector”. When asked whether it’s view on biogas’s potential in Europe Paola Testini, the assistant to the Supergrid’s CEO, said, ‘We do not have any specific info on the best sources of biogas in Europe.’ If as Climate Action Network Europe claims that ‘the EU is the world leader in renewable energy technology’ then it surely should not ignore the hottest topic in the renewables industry – innovations in biogas.
It is not clear why this innovation is not being debated in Europe’s mainstream media. It is not the first time that Europe has fallen behind America in renewable energy solutions. To this day, there is no large- scale CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology in Europe, whilst the US and Canada have two large CCS projects underway that should be operational in 2014. Despite Europe having stringent Renewable energy goals up until 2020 Europe has started using more coal, while America uses shale gas. Paradoxically, coal is replacing gas in Europe as coal has plummeted in price since the advent of shale gas in order to maintain utility companies’ profits.
The good news is that UK has established the first Green Bank in the world, which is ‘intended to invest in innovative, environmentally- friendly areas for which there is a lack of support from markets’, unfortunately ‘business investment is at historic lows in Europe as firms worry about the lack of demand’, according to the Centre for European Reform. That said, some of Europe’s green businesses investments are paying off. A study by VedoGreen analysed 113 green companies on the European stock markets and the data showed a 7% increase in turnover in the first six months of 2012.
The global biogas market is forecasted to hit $33.1 billion by 2022, up from $17.3 billion in 2011. The World Economic Forum has forecasted that $36 billion of public funding is needed to deal with climate change and to avoid these challenges affecting the global economy. Berkley’s FuelCell has shown that biogas will probably shape the political economy of natural resources and will be the preferred solution for the future of energy. During a recent telephone interview with Gustav Grob, the president of the International Clean Energy Consortium, he said that biogas will be ‘the fourth generation fuel, which will replace all fossil fuels. It is a universal fuel for energy’. It is not clear why this message is being suppressed by the media or whether vested interests in other energy markets would prefer this to be kept under wraps. The next step would be to progress the economic research on the potential of biogas and promote this most sustainable and abundant fuel throughout Europe.