South African Rural Biogas Programme hits Environmental and Financial Roadblocks.

Lise Pretoria, Financial Mail, SA, 11/08/2011

There’s a gold mine of energy waiting to be produced from animal waste on SA’s farms. Biogas projects could play an important role in helping SA reach its renewable energy targets of 10000GWh by 2013 — if only producers were given some more support.

Currently, only one farm in SA producing electricity from pig waste. In 2006, Humphries Farm in Bela-Bela, together with international agricultural company Cargill, pioneered a waste-management system that uses a large-scale bio digester that processes pig waste.

By 2009, the farm was generating electricity — but always just 10 kW less than the farm needed, so that power was still drawn from Eskom. “It was a gentlemen’s agreement so that local knowledge could be developed,” says Andrew Taylor, managing director of Cape Advanced Engineering, who designed and supplied the power plant.

The project has the environmental benefits of responsible waste management and carbon emission reduction. This comes through generating electricity that would otherwise have been fossil fuel-generated by capturing methane gas that would have been released into the atmosphere. Taylor is planning 10 more projects like this one, which could be producing a combined 1,9MW by the end of 2012.

The success of the Humphries Farm, however, and the possible success of Taylor’s other projects, is largely through the use of local technology. He says if the engines had to be imported, the project would not have been feasible. In fact, the project was developed on the assumption of government’s renewable energy feed-in tariff (Refit) of 90c/kWh. Now that the proposed Refit tariffs have been scrapped, the ceiling price for biogas is 96c/kWh. But though the Humphries Farm project can break even at 35c-40c/kWh, Taylor says he doesn’t believe “that any biogas plants will work with 96c as the upper ceiling”.

There seems to be a gap between SA’s potential and what is being done to reach it. According to Industrial Development Corp energy specialist Raoul Goosen , SA can produce 5% of its electricity needs from biogas. This would be on-site, localised generation because of the size of the plants. “The largest one could reach about 5MW, but they would typically generate less than 1MW,” says Goosen. A typical Eskom power station generates around 1600MW (Eskom runs some 13 coal fired power stations in SA). This could go a long way in not only bringing low-emission electricity into SA’s energy mix, but also taking pressure off the national grid, which is struggling to keep up with demand.

And there is no lack of innovation waiting to fill this space.

Trade plus Aid (TPA), a nonprofit organisation, and Premier Pork Producers, the representative body for pig producers in the northern region of SA, have 13 farms lined up to become biogas producers under a commercial biogas programme.

Each farm will need around R4,5m to install the technology, which will be funded through the sale of certified emission reductions (CERs) under the UN’s clean development mechanism (CDM). The farms will be registered under a “Programme of Activities”, which means an unlimited number of farms can be added to the programme. The CERs will come from the substitution of fossil fuel- based electricity, as well as captured methane.

However, TPA’s Matthew Hayden says he has struggled to secure the necessary environmental authorisation from the department of environmental affairs. The first application was submitted 17 months ago. The 104-day timeframe for the authorisation of a final environmental impact assessment has been exceeded. The environmental authorisation is the first step of many in the process of generating CER s. Without CERs the projects are not financially practical.

“We’ve complied with all the timeframes,” says Rebecca Bowd, environmental assessment practitioner at Green Door Environmental Consultants, which is handling the process. “But the department says it has capacity constraints.” Comment from the department was not forthcoming.

Those involved say given that the growth of such renewable energy projects is a stated national priority, projects like this should be treated as such, with a concerted effort from government to support them. “We’re trying to rectify something from an environmental perspective that’s always been wrong on farms,” says James Jenkinson, chairman of the SA Pork Producers Association. “But we keep on running into brick walls — there is total frustration (among those involved).”

Jenkinson’s farm in Pretoria is also the site for TPA’s pilot project, where it plans to install the first Capstone microturbine (imported from the US) as a showcase to investors. The plant should be commissioned by the end of September, and the imported turbines will play an important role in transferring technology to SA, says Hayden.

But if Hayden doesn’t receive a response from the department soon, he says investors may withdraw their funds. “The project is under threat, and it’s such an obvious environmental upgrade and investment into renewable energy.”

Perhaps more importantly, if these projects fall through, so will another set of projects. Three years ago, TPA’s investors asked for funds to be channelled into clean technology. Hayden began introducing household-size biogas digesters in rural homes with sufficient kitchen and agricultural waste to run them.

The commercial biogas programme that is being held up by government was intended to raise funds for the domestic programme. Any extra CERs will be used to fund this.

The domestic project gives families a cleaner, more reliable source of energy than wood, and reduces carbon emissions. They can also use the fertiliser, which comes as a byproduct, to grow food gardens. The developmental and environmental spin-offs are clear. But funds from investors dried up quickly: at R35000 a digester, Hayden says it’s a “hard sell”.

SA does not lack renewable energy solutions. What is lacking is the will to create an environment where these solutions can be implemented
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