How food waste can reduce our reliance on natural gas

At a large industrial facility not far southwest of Ireland’s capital Dublin, a man says old food waste and pig manure can help Europe tackle climate change and reduce its dependence on Russia’s regard for energy. Billy Costello explains that decaying organic matter releases biogas, which companies like Green Generation, the one he runs, can collect and purify to produce methane, or biomethane as it’s called when it comes from such sources.

It is an opportunity to find other sources of energy than the natural gas supplied by Russia and thus to distance ourselves from Vladimir Putin’s regime, he argues: “The best thing is that if you can make gas, put it in there and replace Putin.”

European governments have faced a difficult scenario since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, on the one hand introducing sanctions against the Putin regime and wealthy businessmen close to him, while continuing to buy millions of dollars worth of gas from Russia every day. Europe gets around 40% of its natural gas from Russia and some countries have been reluctant to follow the US in imposing a ban on Russian fossil fuel imports.

This is why the European Commission recently decided to set ambitious new targets for the production of biomethane and other fuel sources in Europe. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement: “We must become independent of Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a vendor that explicitly threatens us.

This means replacing around 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian gas with gas from other sources and also using a variety of alternative energies. The Commission hopes that biomethane will be able to supplant the equivalent of 35 billion m3 by 2030, more than 10 times the current European production of biomethane which is only around 3 billion m3.

At the Green Generation factory, stale feed from a supermarket chain, manure from a nearby pig farm and other wastes are loaded into a giant anaerobic digester. Costello has a range of buyers for the biomethane it collects from this system, including customers in the UK who use it in on-road petrol vehicles.

Biomethane, being chemically identical to natural gas, can also be burned to generate electricity or sent via a gas network to domestic boilers. About half of the biomethane consumed in Europe in 2015 was used for domestic heating.

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However, there are two key differences between natural gas and biomethane. First, capturing it from decaying materials prevents the direct release of methane that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. This is important because methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20-year period. When burned, biomethane only releases carbon that was already in circulation whereas natural gas, being a fossil fuel, releases carbon that otherwise would have remained locked up underground.

Second, biomethane can be produced in many more places than natural gas, meaning countries can avoid dependence on those with fossil fuel reserves.

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