Posted on 10 Feb, 2016 by Ollie More
The AD industry is coming under pressure from multiple fronts:
- Feed-In Tariffs have halved and biomethane in the Renewable Heat Incentive could do the same over the next year;
- Levy Exemption Certificates have been scrapped altogether;
- Wholesale energy prices are falling and show no signs of recovery;
- Gate fees for accepting food waste have tumbled as new feedstocks fail to come onto the market; and,
- The Environment Agency is increasing its focus on the sector, with the risk that could create overburdensome regulation.
And this is just the short-term. In the longer-term plants currently receiving the RO, FITs and RHI will no longer be supported. Will they continue to operate after their 20 years? And will AD be able to compete with other waste disposal technologies?
We can’t rely on government policy to overcome all of these pressures. The area that we can control, though, is research and innovation (R&I). AD operators need to make up lost revenue by reducing the cost of feedstock, increasing and improving energy and non-energy outputs, improving the effectiveness of digestate as a source of fertiliser for farming and using new technologies to manage the digestion and associated processes more effectively.
Our 2016 Research and Innovation (R&I) Forum will give the industry an overview of all the latest research that has been conducted in the sector which can support the goal of improving the performance and competitiveness of the AD sector.
The Forum will bring together the academic, government and AD industry to focus on the research and innovation in the sector and how it can support industry survival and growth.
First up on day one, following a welcome from our hosts the Biorenewables Development Centre, we’re delighted that Elaine Calvert of National Grid will be giving us an overview of a project they are undertaking to reduce the cost of connecting biomethane producers to the high pressure gas transmission network. If innovation is “knowledge in à money out” then this area of innovation certainly has the potential to improve the viability of connecting more biomethane producers to high pressure networks. We just need to ensure that the proposals are realistic, and that as an industry we take advantage of any opportunities before any potential shale gas starts using up chunks of the network.
We’ll hear from Professor Charles Banks of Southampton University on the funding that the Anaerobic Digestion Network has provided to date. £60k is available for proof of concept projects and £10k for businesses to have research conducted for them by academics and Charles will outline the options to the AD and research communities. The AD Network is a collaboration between leading AD academics and industry figures that aims to promote cutting edge research that will allow the UK to lead in innovation in AD and fulfil its potential of exporting £2.2bn- worth of expertise and equipment per year (compared to its current £50m-£100m). One of the proof of concept projects funded is the project to mimic cows hydrolysis of feedstock (will we ever learn how to hydrolyse feedstocks in AD plants as fast as cows? – see more on this below), while another uses membranes (fine filters) to recover fatty acids and nutrients from digestate – is this the digestate treatment of the future?
In our Future of Research Funding session we will be hearing from government bodies that provide funding for research and innovation. We hope to hear from representatives of the Research Councils, Innovate UK and/ or Horizon 2020 on funding available. We are submitting to DECC this week our call for £25m per year of funding for innovation in the AD sector. We believe that this is needed to support the industry in meeting the government’s objectives of a more cost-effective technology that can provide energy storage solutions, to be spent researching lower-cost feedstocks, pre-treatment techniques, new process monitoring technology, flexible biogas production and storage, production of biochemicals through anaerobic digestion, gas cleaning and filtration and nutrient extraction and use to name a few.
The afternoon session focusses on improving the AD process, either within the tank or through pre-treatment.
Tony Amato of Doosan Enpure will be presenting a paper written by the R&D team at Doosan Enpure and Birmingham City University on using ultrasound for enhanced sludge and crop digestion to improve methane yields. But by how much? However promising the results, it is great to see some of our larger industry players investing in R&D in the industry.
Doctor James Chong of York University is at the cutting edge of AD industry research. James will tell us about the ‘microbial dynamics’ of digestion and how selection of specific microbes can improve methane yields. Again, my question will be, “but by how much?”.
We want the overall theme of this session to be what current methane yields are across the sector and how these can be improved. Does the AD industry currently measure operational methane yields consistently? Can we improve this by 30%, transforming the viability and potential of the industry?
We’ll also have Mike Mason speaking about how cows hydrolyse their food and why it is so much quicker than hydrolysis carried out in tanks. Mike has a fascinating background and we’re pleased that he is taking such an interest in AD. He started his career as a mining engineer before working in the oil and gas sector. He founded a variety of businesses including Climate Care, one of the world’s first carbon-trading companies, which he sold to JP Morgan in 2008. In 2010, Mike became Energy Advisor to the President of the Maldives, where his task was to steer the country to a zero-carbon future by 2020. Mike currently leads a research programme at Oxford University developing new AD technology, energy crops for semi-arid regions, and AD/Solar PV hybrid technology.
As a case study each year we always want to showcase to the non-water sector the innovation taking place in the sludge management aspect of the water sector. We believe there is a great deal the AD industry as a whole can learn from different sections of the industry learning from each other. Last year it was excellent to hear about Thames Water’s investment in new combined AD and gasification processes, with contracts now being awarded. This year we’ll have a different water company talking about their investments in innovation – what is often striking about the water sector is their ability (relative to the rest of the sector) to invest in research and capital equipment in order to deliver long-term increases in energy outputs or operational cost savings. We also want to hear about how the water industry organises its research investment through bodies such as UKWIR. How can the rest of the industry learn from this, and get involved in ongoing work?
The focus of the morning session of day two is new feedstocks: how can new, lower-cost, fully-sustainable feedstocks such as reeds and straw be brought on to the AD market? The industry is already producing 8 TWh of biogas: with investment in research and innovation this could be 80 TWh. How can this we translate the research and scientific principles into meeting 30% of household gas demand?
A key part of our potential will need to be delivered by sustainable bioenergy feedstocks. We’ll hear from Sally Mills of the RSPB on how they manage their wetlands for nature conservation, which includes harvesting reeds which then need disposing of. Tens of thousands of tonnes of material could be available, and any income generated used to support bird life conservation.
One of the issues of using reeds or any other higher-lignin feedstock in AD is the difficulty of breaking down the lignin. Future Biogas are currently looking to install across a number of their plants a straw processing technology and they will be speaking about this in this session. Pre-treatment of straw is their particular interest. A great example of 5 years of research resulting in a commercial technology which is already being used in Austria with very interesting results. We’re very keen to hear about is as it could see the cost of feeding agricultural AD plants comedown by more than 50%. Further information on pre-treatment technologies can be found on this IEA briefing.
We’ll be hearing from Doctor Michelle Morrison of the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) on their SeaGas project. The project will assess how seaweed, grown off the coast, can be used for AD. CPI are one of a large consortium working on this and it is fantastic that such investment is being made in this area.
The afternoon session will start with a view from an AD operator – Muntons – who use barley residues from their malting factory as an AD feedstock. Muntons produce a range of bioproducts at the malting factory, from food ingredients vinegar. They use multiple production techniques to produce multiple bioproducts. We want AD operators to help us prioritise research needs – after all they, their staff and local community will be the intended long-term beneficiaries of research funding. So what do Muntons believe are the priorities?
Following the Muntons case study will be a discussion on how to recover value from all the co-products from AD: from a focus on methane to a focus on bioresources. Doctor David Tompkins of Aqua Enviro will give a provocative presentation on whether the current government cuts could be a long-term benefit to the industry. And he will ask whether research funding has been focussed in the right areas?
Doctor Ruben Sakrabani of Cranfield University has developed a Phosphate Acceptance Map to assess the suitability of land to receive digestate. With ever-increasing scrutiny of the use of digestate by the Environment Agency, this kind of knowledge is becoming increasingly important. Effective use of phosphate should be an agricultural and environmental win-win.
WRAP will tell us about the results of their digestate trials and how this is being translated into farming best practice. This has been the longest-running trials of digestates and the results are positive if digestate is used correctly. Every farmer using digestate should know about this research! And with food waste AD operators often not even recovering the cost of transporting digestate to farmers – all AD operators need to know the benefits and risks of using digestate in farming.
We will finish the day with a debate on processing digestate. Chaired by David Tompkins, we want to explore the variety of digestate treatment techniques that have been used to date and identify which should be taken forward for priority research.
This year we are holding the event in partnership with the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) and the AD Network. The event is also being supporting by the Knowledge Transfer Network and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council BBSRC. By building such as strong partnerships we are able to ensure that the current research most relevant to the industry is disseminated and debated. If you’re interested in AD research or new technology, these are the organisations you need to know.
Venue and dates
The event will be held at the University of York on the 6 and 7 April. The full programme can be found here and tickets can be bought here.
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