A Visionary Model for Biogas Projects

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Post date: September 23, 2014
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*This post first appeared in Biomass Magazine.*

Biogas advocates and project developers have been abuzz since mid-July, when the Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that allows eligible biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate cellulosic Renewable Information Numbers (RINs). Prior to the July rule, biogas transportation projects were eligible to generate advanced biofuel RINs. The cellulosic fuel pool within the RFS is much larger than the advanced biofuel pool. Statutory renewable fuel obligations by 2022 are 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel and 4 billion gallons of advanced biofuel. The EPA is responsible for determining an annual renewable fuel volume obligation for the different fuel pools. Each year the EPA has significantly reduced the annual cellulosic fuel volume obligation from statutory requirements because fuel production expectations have fallen short.

Allowing biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate RFS cellulosic credits represents an amazing opportunity for biogas project development. There is an incredible amount of organic waste feedstocks that could be processed in biogas energy systems. Biogas energy systems also present an opportunity to establish perennial feedstocks. I wrote about the topic in my January column, but would like look at what this could mean for the biogas industry by looking at a proposed project with a visionary model.

Readers of Biomass Magazine might already be familiar with a project in Northern Missouri developed and constructed by Roeslein Alternative Energy (RAE). The project has an ambitious vison to produce 50 million diesel gallon equivalents by the end of the decade using biogas from hog manure and energy crops. The diesel fuel replacement goal is only one part of a grand vision. In addition to producing a large volume of low-carbon transportation fuel from cleaned and compressed biogas, the project also aims to restore 30 million acres of highly erodible land to native grasslands over the next 30 years. The grasses and other perennial species would be a feedstock input for biogas energy systems. *This post has been modified to include the video below, which describes the proposed Northern Missouri project.*

 

Achieving this vision will require a multi-phase plan. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rudi Roeslein, CEO of Roeslein Alternative Energy, about their planned approach. The first phase of the project is already underway. RAE and their project partner, Murphy-Brown of Missouri, announced the commencement of the installation of impermeable covers on 88 existing hog manure lagoons.  The next phase of the project will implement biogas cleaning and conditioning equipment to produce a source of renewable natural gas (RNG) and establish a network of distribution centers to provide RNG to vehicle fleets. The third phase will establish a demonstration project using above ground anaerobic digestion systems to process hog manure and perennial feedstocks.

Murphy Brown in cooperation with the Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service planted 400 acres in prairie plantings that could now be used as part of the testing program.  In addition, Roeslein Northern Missouri Real Estate has been replanting and restoring native grassland and prairie on their 1650 acre farm located within the project area for the past 5 years and has adequate feedstock to test in the demonstration project. The University of Minnesota has been engaged by Roeslein Alternative Energy in the testing of various feedstock to evaluate the potential methane yield and help evaluate ecological services such feedstock would provide.

The Roeslein project vision and all of the potential economic and environmental benefits is exciting and inspiring. This type of model could be replicated throughout the Midwest, the US and even globally.  This project can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing methane from hog manure, sequestrating carbon in perennial grasslands, and displacing diesel fuel with RNG. The project will also result in improved water quality and establish habitat for wildlife. There are also economic benefits in the form of job creation, local economic activity for construction and operations, and increased farm income from energy crop purchases. 

The EPA’s recent action expanding biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate cellulosic RINs represents an enormous opportunity for project scale-up all across the US. Biogas proponents should feel inspired by the Roeslein Alternative Energy project model in Northern Missouri.

2014 will be the year that we see commercial scale production of cellulosic ethanol using corn stover as a feedstock. These first-of-a-kind liquid renewable fuel projects need an enormous amount of feedstock to begin operation. Biogas energy projects could play a role in helping to establish energy crops for future projects. Biogas energy projects do not require as much feedstock volume as liquid renewable fuel projects, but could immediately provide a market for producers willing to establish grassland and native perennials on a portion of their land.  So many different opportunities are possible for the biogas industry; we just need to reach out and grab them.