Biogas Projects Can Help Establish Energy Crop Supply

Amanda Bilek, government affairs manager for Great Plains Institute, discusses the use of energy crops in biogas production today, compared to its ultimate potential.
By Amanda Bilek | January 25, 2014

The U.S. biogas sector has done an outstanding job developing projects using livestock manure, landfill gas and municipal biosolids to generate clean energy. Although there is still a large amount of untapped potential to use these three feedstock sources, the use of crop residues and energy crops are completely underutilized in the U.S. biogas market. International biogas project development experience has demonstrated that the use of crop residues and energy crops are valuable feedstocks to produce increased levels of biogas and project stability. 

Energy crops such as perennial grasses can boost biogas production, but also provide additional wildlife habitat and environmental benefits. Over the summer, the opportunity of developing grassland feedstocks for anaerobic digestion projects was discussed by a panel at the America’s Grasslands Conference hosted by the National Wildlife Federation. Attendees heard from University of Wisconsin researchers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff and a private project developer, each of whom presented information on current efforts to establish grassland production for bioenergy opportunities, especially biogas energy systems. 

One of presenters, Roeslein Alternative Energy LLC, announced a partnership agreement with Murphy-Brown of Missouri LLC at the end of 2013 to move forward on a $100 million biogas project in northern Missouri. The project aims to anaerobically digest manure from area hog farms to produce upgraded biogas for the transportation fuel market, but also has a vision to establish 15,000 acres of native grassland as additional feedstock for the biogas project. It is an exciting project with an ambitious sustainability vision. Once successful, it could shift the paradigm for U.S. biogas projects. 

Another presenter described a public-private partnership in southern Wisconsin that is also aiming to shift the project paradigm and create monetary value in grassland feedstocks for bioenergy projects. Current waterfowl production areas managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are not suitable for the preferred fire management method. Instead, harvest of grasslands is being explored as an alternative habitat management tool. A special task force made up of private and public partners from different disciplines is working closely to leverage the experimental harvest to develop an anaerobic digestion project that would combine the harvested habitat residues, dedicated energy crops and dairy manure to produce biogas. The task force is aiming to develop this project relying on a mix of available financial incentives and market mechanisms. The task force acknowledges that there are still several obstacles to overcome, but members are committed to making it work. Once successful, it could provide a compelling and profitable model for future biogas energy projects. 

Each of these projects holds tremendous promise for overcoming the chicken-and-egg situation that has eluded the establishment of biomass energy crops. How do you convince land owners to plant biomass energy crops without a market? An advantage biogas energy systems might have over liquid renewable fuel projects is scale. Including grasslands, a feedstock mix for a biogas project would not require nearly as large of biomass supply as a liquid biofuel project. As the number of biogas projects increases in a local area, the establishment of energy crops could also scale up, since the biogas projects would provide an immediate and local market for biomass supplies. Biogas energy systems could play a critical role in creating a market and supply chain for new biomass supplies, benefiting future bioenergy projects.

Author: Amanda Bilek
Government Affairs Manager, Great Plains Institute
[email protected]