Milk producers have welcomed USDA work to plot out ways to develop biogas output

Milk producers have welcomed USDA work to plot out ways to develop biogas output

An initiative launched under the auspices of President Obama's Climate Action Plan will see the government foster a major expansion of biogas use. Ben Cooper looks at the implications of the US government's Biogas Opportunities Roadmap for US food manufacturers.

Plans announced this month by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to foster a substantial expansion in the use of biogas across the US is clearly of significance to the country's food manufacturers.

At the beginning of the month, the USDA published its Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, which sets out how an additional 11,000 anaerobic digestion (AD) plants can be developed resulting in "huge" emissions savings.

The initiative, developed in collaboration with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stems from the call on the USDA, contained in President Obama's Climate Action Plan of June 2013, to develop a comprehensive, inter-agency strategy to reduce methane emissions, promote technologies to convert methane into renewable energy and grow the nation's biogas energy sector. 

According to USDA data, there are some 2,116 biogas systems operating in the US. However, the USDA believes there is the potential to increase this to 13,008. This would provide, the USDA estimates, some 41bn kWh/year of electricity from 654bn cubic feet of biogas per year, enough to power more than 3m homes for one year or produce the equivalent of 2.5bn gallons of vehicle fuel.

Critically, the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap also serves as one outcome from a partnership between the dairy sector and the USDA, which the industry requested to help it achieve its 2008 goal to reduce GHG emissions in its supply chains by 25% by 2020.

The Roadmap was enthusiastically welcomed by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). "The Biogas Roadmap will help stimulate the emerging biogas market in ways that could provide revenue-generating opportunities for dairy farms of all sizes," NMPF president and CEO Jim Mulhern said, adding that it "validates the proactive and voluntary path the industry is already taking to reduce methane emissions, and provides direction for future actions and opportunities".

To give some idea of the development of AD in the US, Germany has some 8,000 AD plants in operation, though not all European countries do so well. The UK only has 125 plants. 

The overwhelming majority of the systems running in the US are producing biogas at municipal water treatment facilities or at landfill sites. 

Meanwhile, EPA data puts the number of biogas systems operating on US farms at 239. Dairy not surprisingly accounts for the lion's share of these, with some 193 sites using a biogas system. There are four at beef farms, five at poultry farms, 29 at pork units and 8 at mixed facilities. 

Of the five sources of biogas production identified in the Roadmap, two are of particular interest to US food manufacturers, namely food lost post-harvest or wasted after production somewhere along the supply chain, and food production residuals, by-products of food production and processing. 

The food industry's cross-stakeholder collaboration on food waste, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), launched in 2011 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association, follows the EPA food waste hierarchy in defining its priorities and strategy. This means that source reduction, feeding the hungry and animal feed are all deemed higher priorities than industrial uses, which would include biogas production.

Significantly, however, reducing food waste to landfill, which sits at the very bottom of the EPA hierarchy, is a priority for both the FWRA and the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap.

According to the USDA, in 2010 around 133bn pounds of food from US retail food stores, restaurants and homes went unconsumed, representing 31% of the available food supply. More alarmingly, the EPA estimates food waste is the single largest component in municipal solid waste being sent to landfill sites, which are the third largest source of methane in the US.

As the goal of reducing food waste to landfill is pursued, with some states and municipalities mandating the diversion of commercial organic waste away from landfill, increasing amounts of organic waste is becoming available for biogas generation and increased AD capacity is required to process this.

Regarding using residuals from food production for biogas generation, there is considerable potential for the installation of biogas production on-site at food manufacturing facilities.

With the high volumes of organic waste generated, breweries, distilleries and food manufacturing sites across the world are using this form of renewable energy generation. However, the Roadmap suggests there is considerable potential for this to be stepped up in the US food manufacturing sector.

"Food production and processing facilities, for example milk processing, breweries, wineries and juice plants, produce large volumes of industrial organics as a by-product of their processes. While a number of these facilities have installed on-site digesters to manage these wastes, many more processors could produce biogas by installing digesters."

It is notable the recent GMA report, Environmental Success Stories in the Consumer Packaged Goods Industry, which catalogues sustainability achievements in the food sector, contains no reference to biogas generation or anaerobic digestion.

US-based sustainability think tank Ceres recently reported that only 25% of the 24 US food and beverage producers it examined for its Gaining Ground report use renewable energy sources. 

The development of renewable energy plants, including anaerobic digesters, involves significant up-front costs. Incentivising investment is therefore crucial, something acknowledged by the government.

"Fully realising the market potential of biogas systems will take significant investment by livestock producers, municipalities, food producers, the private waste sector and project developers," the Roadmap states. "An integrated approach will be necessary to overcome the barriers limiting growth of the biogas industry." 

Among these barriers, the USDA states, is the lack of research and development and critically a lack of full valuation for energy generated through biogas systems.

The Biogas Opportunities Roadmap identifies actions the US government will take to overcome or mitigate these obstacles, in particular "to help the private sector voluntarily realise the full potential of biogas systems".

It points out there are already government agency programmes up and running aimed at increasing biogas production. For the food supply chain, the most important of these is perhaps the EPA's AgSTAR Programme, an educational outreach initiative which promotes the recovery and use of methane from animal manure.

Other measures include funding for research and development and the creation of a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap Working Group. This will include representation from the dairy sector as well as the relevant government agencies, to ensure effective coordination between the agencies and the between government and the private sector in pursuit of the Roadmap goals. 

Crucially, the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which provides technical and financial assistance to farmers looking to invest in environmentally beneficial innovation, is to conduct a review of its criteria to ensure the full environmental benefits of modern anaerobic digesters are fully recognised. In addition, both the USDA and DOE will review applicable current loan and grant programmes in order to enhance the financing options available for biogas systems.

The Biogas Opportunities Roadmap Working Group will produce a progress report in August 2015, which will provide an early opportunity to judge its effectiveness in fostering the uptake of anaerobic digestion among US food manufacturers.