Biogas development in the UK

Biogas Action activity in the UK almost defies the title of the project by promoting the fact anaerobic digestion of agricultural wastes is far more than just a source of renewable energy. Biogas is but one “product” among many and the gift that anaerobic digestion offers to the planet is almost the epitome of sustainable development.

In an article entitled “Biogas: Boom or Bust” (July 2016), Dr Caitlin Burns and Lucy Hopwood stated that “Until now, growth in the AD sector has been driven by renewable energy incentives, making the investment into AD financially appealing. There are now 316 AD plants in operation in the UK, with a cumulative installed capacity of 289.2MWe”.  Having set out the background and discussed the available feedstocks and policy setting they concluded “The AD sector faces a challenging future; operating in an unfavourable policy landscape with increasingly stringent compliance criteria, feedstock restrictions and reducing levels of support. There is hope for the coming year but beyond 2017 the development landscape remains questionable with the risk that new regulations will be too limiting and under the new cost-control mechanisms the industry could be a victim of its own success.”

It is in this context, along with a recognition that the anaerobic digestion of organic waste has much more to offer to the planet than renewable energy, that Biogas Action in the UK decided to set its stance very firmly in the promotion of small-scale plant to handle animal wastes.  Wales was chosen as the demonstrator nation because the Welsh Government appeared to be supportive and potentially ready to intervene to see this market develop.

The first year of Biogas Action activity has been about seeking out and seizing upon opportunities as they have arisen – as well as a more structured approach that brought together all of the key stakeholders to prepare an Intervention Strategy for Wales.  That Intervention has been finalised and presented to the relevant minister of the Welsh Government and a response is awaited.

Some of the opportunities that have arisen come as a result of a growing awareness of issues around the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, diffuse pollution problems arising from the spreading of animal manures and the realisation that grid constraints are severely the opportunities for renewable energy generation at even a modest scale.

Getting the message out has been a key activity and the UK Biogas Action team has talked with individual farmers, LEADER groups, local authorities, environmental NGO’s and decision-makers. A recent visit to a local AD plant by the Assembly Member for the area in which SWEA’s Welsh office is situated was a real success. Mrs Williams (who is a Welsh Government minister) listened to us as we explained about AD and its advantages and how we needed to see much smaller versions of the plant that she visiting – particularly in those parts of the country with numerous dairy herds.

Biogas Action is working to see AD plant installations of various types and sizes and dealing with various feedstocks.  There is an obvious need on dairy farms but there is also a real problem of diffuse pollution associated with large poultry units and beef cattle.  The feedstocks associated with these enterprises are more difficult than cattle slurry but innovation is not beyond the realms of the project – and the environmental prize is well worth pursuing.

The Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) conference in London on the 8th December 2016 gave Andy Bull from SWEA the opportunity of addressing the AD industry of the UK and promoting the story to a wide audience.  A comment from a leading advocate of small-scale AD after the event clearly gave hope that the message was no longer being received with the scepticism that it was even a year ago.