Turning farm waste into renewable energy – The ALFA Story

Using manure from livestock farming for biogas production has positive environmental and economic impacts. These include reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by replacing fossil fuels, mitigating air, soil, and water pollution through improved manure management, and diversifying farmers’ income. In this article, we explore the strategies adopted through the ALFA project to achieve this objective and highlight the benefits of unlocking the biogas potential from livestock farmers. Additionally, we shed light on the social perception and acceptance.

Sustainable agriculture as driver of biogas production

According to the European Biogas Association’s 2023 database, the agricultural sector significantly contributes to European biogas and biomethane production, with 67% of biogas and 64% of biomethane originating from agricultural plants. This shows the substantial role of agricultural feedstocks like manure, sequential crops, and other residues. The recently published Guidehouse report “Biogases towards 2040 and beyond: A realistic and resilient path to climate neutrality” calculates that by 2040, 82% of the biogases potential will be derived from agriculture, with 43% from sequential crops, 20% from agricultural residues, and 19% from animal manure. This indicates a continued integration between the agricultural sector and renewable gas production.

In that context, the ALFA project aims to harness the significant role of agriculture in the biogas sector by tapping into the potential of biogas production specifically from livestock farming. The goal is to promote wider uptake of renewable energy sources and increase the share of bioenergy as a flexible energy source, all while reducing emissions from untreated animal waste and supporting the creation of new jobs and the local economy.

The diverse frameworks and specificities of local biogas markets across Europe require an adaptable approach that goes beyond uniform strategies when supporting the scaleup and market uptake of biogas technologies.

Critical challenges for livestock farmers

During the initial phase of the ALFA project, partners assessed the current social, economic, and legal factors that hinder the use of anaerobic digestion (AD) technologies for on-farm biogas production. They concluded that the six target countries of the project have high potential to use livestock manure to enhance their biogas production. However, they still face specific barriers.

In Greece, unused biomass and a lack of biomethane commercialisation persist due to inadequate financial incentives for biogas projects.  Farmers’ limited technical know-how and awareness of biogas benefits remain a challenge in Spain. Slovakia encounters logistical barriers especially in grid infrastructure, alongside insufficient public support, and regulatory clarity for biogas operations. Italy’s biogas growth is slowing down by complex authorisation procedures and social opposition. Belgian farmers find obtaining a permit to install a biogas plant difficult. In Denmark, farmers require assistance in both business and technical aspects.

A survey of 3,000 EU citizens revealed a limited understanding of biogas production from manure. While respondents generally have positive perceptions of its environmental and economic benefits, there are misconceptions, such as concerns about health impacts and the safety of production technology. Some also believe biogas production can worsen odours and lower property values nearby.

Local ecosystems: a core element of biogas production

To address this multitude of challenges, ALFA established regional hubs in six European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Slovakia) early in 2022 and started engaging with local stakeholders to setup regional networks as an effective mechanism for engagement and cooperation with the local ecosystems. These networks were instrumental in conducting framework analyses of the biogas sector, identifying success stories and co-designing an inclusive and responsive local-needs-approach in all biogas project activities.

Based on in-depth interviews with successful biogas and biomethane implementations, ALFA hubs came up with valuable recommendations for prospective investors:

  • Firstly, consider the operational and maintenance demands of running a biogas plant, factoring in initial design, operation, and maintenance plans to mitigate investment risks and secure biomass feedstock. Return on investment typically spans 6-7 years, varying by country.
  • Before installation, conduct 4-5 manure analyses to accurately assess biogas potential. Also, the quality of liquid manure is easier to work with than thick manure, though this may vary depending on the specific case.
  • Diversify feedstock and integrate renewable energy sources to broaden income streams. Prioritise biomethane plant implementation alongside biogas facilities for optimal outcomes.
  • Given bureaucratic challenges, having project participants knowledgeable in authorisation and implementation processes proves advantageous, especially considering significant variations across countries and regions.

In addition to the above recommendations, ALFA also created decision support tools to provide actionable knowledge and science-based information to livestock farming for leveraging the potential of biogas and fostering a fruitful environment for ideas exchange, networking, and collaboration. These resources  are available through the ALFA Engagement platform and include: the Livestock Biogas Library (with various materials, including articles), a Decision Support Tool (for assessing biogas projects in terms of profitability and environmental and social benefits), an interactive map with active Biogas Cases, an online repository named Knowledge Center with useful informative materials, and a Biogas Forum serving as an open environment for nurturing novel ideas and exchanging best practices.

The ALFA project is designed to act as a catalyst of biogas production by offering demand driven support for livestock farmers to take up biogas solutions, while also providing policymakers and stakeholders insightful information on biogas market dynamics. The project will complete its journey by providing science-based information to livestock farming decision makers for the potential of biogas in the form of policy recommendations. Additionally, it aims to raise awareness of the general public on misperceptions about biogas and bioenergy and contribute to the market uptake of biogas solutions in the livestock sector by producing an easy-to-use replication guide.

About the author

George Osei Owusu – Project and Technical Officer owusu@europeanbiogas.eu , ALFA Consortium konstas@qplan-intl.gr

George Osei Owusu started working as Technical and Project Officer at EBA. He is mainly involved in EU projects on biogas and biomethane, predominantly on market research and the application of biogas in some EU countries, such as GreenMeUp, ALFA and eQATOR. George has a background in Environmental Science with a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering from JUNIA, France.

Published on 3 May 2024.