4 ways to enhance sustainable biomethane production – Interview with Air Liquide

Air Liquide recently adopted an internal charter developed with WWF France and other experts, including the European Biogas Association, to enhance sustainable biomethane production. It focuses on four main pillars: contributing to the energy transition, supporting agroecological practices, maximising benefits for local ecosystems and promoting a circular economy, and preserving biodiversity while preventing environmental risks. We spoke with Arnaud De Veron, Sustainable Development Leader, to learn more.

The charter aims to increase awareness about the potential impacts of biomethane projects and to foster further collaboration with the ecosystem towards more efficient sustainability frameworks.

1) Could you briefly present Air Liquide’s Biogas Solutions?

Air Liquide, a world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and healthcare, has developed competencies throughout the entire biomethane value chain. This includes biogas production from waste, its purification into biomethane, and its injection into gas grids or compression/liquefaction for storage and transportation to customers. Air Liquide currently operates 26 biomethane production units worldwide, with a yearly production capacity of approximately 1.8 TWh.

2) Could you elaborate on the inception of this collaboration project with WWF France and Air Liquide’s proactive approach to sustainable biomethane production?

In 2020, we carried out Life Cycle Assessments on two of our biomethane production units. The results highlighted the diversity of impacts of our sites. While every energy production asset can have both positive and negative environmental impacts, the multifunctionality of anaerobic digestion likely contributes to a broader range of externalities. This finding underscored the need for us to better understand and monitor the sustainability characteristics of our current operations and future projects, going beyond existing regulations that primarily focus on biomethane as an energy vector.

To reach this goal, we collaborated with WWF France to leverage their expertise in defining sustainability criteria to improve our projects and bring further legitimacy to our approach. Air Liquide Biogas Solutions and WWF France joined forces to design a first set of principles, criteria, and indicators to frame what sustainable biomethane production means with the support of some other stakeholders (consultants, academia and the European Biogas Association). 

3) What are the main findings of this collaboration and the main commitments of Air Liquide?

The collaboration led to consider that the development of sustainable biomethane relies on 4 main principles:

  1. Contribute efficiently to energy transition
  2. Be a lever for agroecological practices   
  3. Maximise benefits for local ecosystems and promote circular economy
  4. Preserve biodiversity and prevent environmental risks

The main findings are further detailed in a public synthesis that aims to increase the awareness of the potential impacts of biomethane projects and to engage further collaboration with the ecosystem toward more efficient sustainability frameworks.

4) Could you provide some specific examples of actions taken by Air Liquide?

Besides the public synthesis, the collaboration aimed to develop an internal charter for our investment committee to assess the sustainability of any new projects based on (i) clear and thorough criteria considered as “Sustainability Essentials” for selection purposes and (ii) key sustainability indicators combined into an overall “Sustainability Score” for comparison purposes.

For instance, this frames the followings:

  • production projects should not incorporate food-and-feed crops (except intermediate crops)
  • facilities are designed to minimise methane and ammonia losses
  • biomethane carbon footprint reduction and energy return on investment maximisation are incentivised
  • agroecological practices (e.g. diversification and chemicals minimisation for the intermediate crops) are promoted
5) What are the main limits and what could be the next steps?

First, I would emphasise that beyond this generic framework, the sustainability of each project depends on local conditions. Moreover, this internal charter must be seen as a humble contribution that will certainly evolve in the future and that needs to be discussed, enriched, and challenged by other stakeholders. In particular, biomethane projects are embedded within existing agricultural systems and the farmers are a crucial part of the equation. It will be necessary to engage more with them in the future.

We also need to collaborate more with the authorities to make sure that government incentives favour equally economic success and sustainability. We must seek systemic, impactful, and pragmatic measures and create a level playing field that promotes the most sustainable practices.