Methane leakage from biogas facilities underscores the importance of doing things right.

I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about what it means to “get it right” on the environment. Solar panels are great, but less so if the silicon mining destroys habitat, or the copper mines and refineries for the power cables poison the land around them. We can’t just replace fossil fuels with other power sources and change nothing else. We have to change not just how we generate and use power, but also how we extract resources, how we process them, how we transport them, and how we dispose of the waste generated in every part of that system.

Climate change isn’t the only major environmental problem we face; it’s just the most urgent one. We need to stop being so sloppy in general, but you’d think that folks involved in renewable energy production in particular would understand that. Unfortunately, it turns out that biogas facilities, while certainly more renewable than fossil sources of gas, are still leaking a lot of methane into the atmosphere.

The new Imperial study, published in One Earth journal, found that supply chains for biomethane and biogas release more than twice as much methane as the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s previous estimation. It also reveals that 62 per cent of these leaks were concentrated in a small number of facilities and pieces of equipment within the chain, which they call ‘super-emitters’, though methane was found to be released at every stage.

The researchers say urgent attention is needed to fix the methane leaks, and knowing precisely where the majority of them are happening will help production plants to do so.

Lead author of the study Dr Semra Bakkaloglu, of Imperial’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Sustainable Gas Institute, said: “Biomethane and biogas are great candidates for renewable and clean energy sources, but they can also emit methane. For them to really help mitigate the warming effects of energy use, we must act urgently to reduce their emissions.

“We want to encourage the continued use of biogas and biomethane as a renewable resource by taking the necessary actions to tackle methane emissions.”

The researchers note that compared to the oil and gas industry, the biomethane industry suffers from poorly designed and managed production facilities as well as a lack of investment for modernisation, operation, and monitoring. Because oil and natural gas supply chains have been primarily operated by large companies with huge resources for decades, they have been able to invest more in leak detection and repair.

Honestly, I’m reluctant to blame the people involved in biogas production. This seems to be yet another symptom of the broader systemic disease – people in power don’t take climate change seriously. So of course biogas doesn’t get the funding it needs. As much as I wish it were otherwise, it always comes back to politics. This is just another small part of the massive change we urgently need. The only real upside is that every small part we deal with, will both reduce the size of the task ahead, and make other aspects of that task easier.

Dr Bakkaloglu said: “To prevent biogas methane emissions negating the overall benefits of biogas use, urgent attention is needed including continuous monitoring of biogas supply chains. We believe that with the proper detection, measurement, and repair techniques, all emissions can be avoided. We need better regulations, continuous emission measurements, and close collaboration with biogas plant operators in order to address methane emissions and meet Paris Agreement targets.”

“Given the growth in biomethane due to national decarbonisation strategies, urgent efforts are needed for the biomethane supply chain to address not only methane emissions but also the sustainability of biomethane.”

Co-author Dr Jasmin Cooper, also of the Sustainable Gas Institute and Department of Chemical Engineering, said: “Addressing the fundamental design issues and investment problems within the biofuel and methane industry would be a good starting point for stopping these leaks and preventing more from arising.”

The researchers are now focusing on the super-emitters within supply chains to better understand how to reduce them using the best available technologies.

As always, it’s good that we know about this. I think I’ve been advocating for biogas as part of our new energy “portfolio” for longer than I’ve been talking about the whole “getting it right” thing. This tech means that every human population can have a reliable source of flammable gas that’s proportional to the number of people feeding into the sewage system. I hope the leak problem gets fixed soon, because I don’t think we can afford to squander useful energy, and I know we can’t afford to be letting more methane into the atmosphere.

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  1. Katydid says

    A few years back, Heifer International was pushing stoves that run on biogas for people without a reliable source of fuel for cooking. If they had livestock, they could have free fuel to cook with from the waste the animals produce.

    That’s all I know about biogas. I’ll have to look into it further.

  2. says

    Thames Water is the one that always comes to mind first, for me. They refitted their sewage treatment plant to generate gas, and I think they made back their investment in just a couple years. I also know there are a few dairies that now power themselves and their delivery vehicles with cow manure.

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