Since Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, EU policy makers and energy companies have been asking themselves an inconvenient but long overdue question: how to finally achieve energy independence from Russian gas? One of their solutions: biogas. The EU recently announced plans to ramp up biogas production to a volume of 20% of current Russian gas imports by 2030. In the new plan, biogas is expected to replace parts of the Russian fossil gas used for heating, industrial processes, and electricity generation.
What is biogas?
Biogas is produced from biological materials such as crop residues, municipal solid waste and energy crops. These feedstocks are converted to biogas via anaerobic digestion, whereby bacteria breakdown organic materials in this natural process. An even more interesting energy source is the derivative product called biomethane – obtained by “upgrading” biogas to remove carbon dioxide and create pure biomethane – which has the same composition as the fossil gas that we have in our pipelines. Both are largely untapped; today, biogas supplies European less than 5% of gas demand.
Biogas and biomethane have a few advantages in this time of crisis (and for short-to-medium term decarbonization). First, the technology is mature, which means that it can be deployed immediately. Anaerobic digestors have existed for decades, and new promising technologies to produce biogas (e.g., thermal gasification) will improve its production over time. This puts biogas at an advantages vis-à-vis hydrogen, which is still in its nascent stages. However, the price of biogas is more expensive than fossil gas. Still, the increase in today’s prices will decrease the gap (current biogas cost is 40 – 90 EUR/MWh).
Secondly, using biomethane requires very little retrofitting of our existing infrastructure. While “upgrading” biogas to biomethane requires an additional step, biomethane can be blended into fossil gas boilers without any change in infrastructure. Even more interesting, biomethane can be transported within existing fossil gas pipelines, without the need to create new transport supply chains. This is especially advantageous compared to electrical solutions – which require a massive campaign to install new electrical equipment in homes and factories (though equipment like heat pumps offer a significant efficiency benefit and should also be ramped up in parallel).
Finally, it has the potential to grow. The National Renewable Energy Plans (NREAPs) and the IEA have both reported that the technical potential of biogas today is untapped, and the potential is huge. Last year, the EU imported 155 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from Russia, representing 45% of its demand. A 2018 report from the IEA projects that the EU-27 have the technical potential to produce up to ~ 130 billion cubic meters (bcm), covering around 80% of this demand, well beyond the 20% recently announced EU target.
Despite this potential, a few challenges remain:
- Social concerns. Perhaps the greatest roadblock in the development of biogas (and bioenergy in general) is its reliance on agricultural materials as feedstock. Historically, a large share of biogas in Europe was produced using “energy crop” feedstocks, namely – plants planted with the express purpose of using this for energy. In a world where famine still abounds, using agricultural space and food products (e.g., maize) for energy purposes is problematic, especially in light of supply scarcity of wheat, barley and maize caused by the recent conflict in Ukraine, and the increase in food prices. This is one of the many reasons that biogas and bioenergy in general, have not experienced the same growth as other types of renewable energy.
- Time. While the technology for producing biogas/biomethane exists today, launching new biogas and biomethane production requires time – first to build more digesters, and also to organize the sourcing of feedstock, which is often handled on local markets. Today, the EU produces ~15 bcm of biogas and another ~2 bcm of biomethane. To ramp this up to 130 bcm requires a 9-fold increase in production which is no small feat, especially compared to a business-as-usual trajectory that expected only a doubling of biogas production by 2030.
- Sustainability concerns. The EU has progressively cracked down on feedstocks that it considers sustainable, putting biogas feedstocks under increased scrutiny. Energy crops impact land use (and natural carbon sinks), biodiversity, soil, and water use, and increase demand for harmful fertilizers with their own GHG footprint. Fortunately, the type of feedstock used in biogas and biomethane generation is changing from dedicated energy crops to waste  and plant residue streams, with the latter already producing the majority of EU biogas. In 2019, waste and residue feedstocks were used in almost 65% of EU biomethane plants compared to 40% in 2012. Yet some of these residues include forest residues—which must be carefully curated  to stay in line with biomass sustainability criteria in recent EU directives (RED II/RED III). A massive ramp up of biogas and biomethane production require mobilizing both energy crops and forest residues, and careful attention must be paid to adhering to sustainability requirements when sourcing feedstock – and reevaluating requirements on an ongoing basis, as biogas sustainability continues to be challenged by the NGO and scientific community.
Finally, like any mobilization of resources to phase-out Russian gas, biogas and biomethane ramp up will require clear policy signals from the EU government to stimulate production. The 20% target is a start—as it signals to producers a growing market for their product. Other policies, including formalizing a system for trading of biogas sustainability certificates across borders, are in progress.
In conclusion, the EU is right to consider biogas as a tool in their toolbox to counter dependence on Russian gas in the short to medium term. Yet it will be one of many solutions, as highlighted by a number of recent studies on the pathway to reducing dependence, including the IEA’s ten-point plan. Energy reduction and energy efficiency should always be considered as the first step in any decarbonization plan –and this situation is no exception. Biogas should certainly be considered as a better alternative to other non-Russian gas imports that some pathways consider (e.g., EU can stop Russian gas imports by 2025). Any short to medium term measures for Russian gas independence should also be considered as part of the EU’s broader decarbonization plan, and biogas — when produced sustainability — achieves both objectives.
 Primarily municipal solid waste and animal manure.
 Using forest residues for biogas/biomass increases the pressure on forests which are already damaged. To protect forests and increase the carbon sinks, some residues must remain in the forest.