Biogas and biomethane emissions – a quick win for decarbonising future energy systems?
In our latest blog, Dr Semra Bakkaloglu reflects on our newly published research into biogas and biomethane emissions.
Over 100 years, methane has 27.2 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. So when it comes to climate change, it’s pretty potent stuff. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, which makes it a quick-win target in the drive to decarbonise our global energy system.
It’s no coincidence that over 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow. The pledge is a commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% (from 2020 levels) by 2030. But a 30% reduction is ambitious, not to mention a complete reversal of the current trajectory of increasing methane emissions. Achieving that will require a combination of measures, which include reducing emissions from the existing supply chain whilst also reducing reliance on natural gas as a fuel by switching to cleaner energy alternatives, such as electrification or hydrogen.
But those new energy alternatives are at wildly different stages of technological readiness and require major infrastructure changes and investment. They are unlikely to happen overnight – and many are unlikely to become mainstream within the next 8 years.
One sector that is expected to grow and contribute to decarbonisation in that transition period is biogas and biomethane – a mixture of gases (mostly methane (CH4 and carbon dioxide (CO2)) produced from biodegradable materials. It’s a technology with a lot of factors in its favour: the volume of organic waste – known as feedstock – generated by modern societies is increasing, it provides a beneficial alternative disposal method for that waste, and conversion of energy from waste to biogas can begin to replace fossil fuel gas – which in turn reduces overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Ultimately it contributes to meeting those government commitments.
But biogas and biomethane production can also emit methane and it’s an area that’s been lacking in research. No study has assessed methane emissions from the biogas and biomethane supply chain – until now.
For our recent study, we synthesised methane emissions from the biogas and biomethane supply chains by breaking down stages and identifying key elements from direct measurements studies. We used a statistical model Monte Carlo approach to estimate aggregate methane emissions with uncertainty assessment, which can account for up to 343 g CO2-eq. We observed that biogas and biomethane supply chains exhibit similar emission characteristics to oil and natural gas with super-emitters present at all stages. In our study, 62% of the emissions come from just 5% of the point sources – these super-emitters waste a disproportionately large amount of methane
“..62% of the emissions come from just 5% of the point sources – these super-emitters waste a disproportionately large amount of methane.”
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) inventory, (the only other benchmark data currently available) estimated total methane emissions from bioenergy to be 9.1 Tg in 2021.
Our study, which only looked at one aspect of bioenergy (biomethane), discovered that methane emissions are more likely to be in the range of 6.4 – 7.8 Tg per year (95th percentile), but the average methane emissions are around 2.8 Tg according to the IEA’s global biogas and biomethane generation rate 1.47 EJ in 2018. If biogas and biomethane production are expanded to the same scale as the oil and natural gas industries and no action is taken, they could emit almost 4 times as much methane as oil and gas supply chains (82.5 Tg in 2021). At present, our results indicate they are high – higher even than natural gas, which is clearly a worry.
Considering the latest IPCC-AR6-WG3 climate change mitigation scenarios that achieve the Paris Agreement 1.5°C temperature rise mitigation target with low or no overshoot, we can see that biogas and methane could have up to 28 EJ of production by 2050. Using our mean emissions rate (52.3 g CO2-eq per MJHHV) from this study, this would result in 53.8 Tg methane emissions. This drives home the point that it is extremely important to reduce biogas and biomethane emissions for these energy sources to play a constructive role in our future energy system.
Finding and removing these large emitters is a critical step toward significantly reducing overall emissions from biomethane and natural gas supply chains. It’s not just about controlling greenhouse gases either. There’s a significant economic argument for addressing emissions – all that lost gas has a commercial value.
According to the European Biogas Association (EBA), biomethane can be produced for as little as €55 per MWh, while natural gas costs around €80 per MWh. When our findings are combined with the cost of biomethane, we can calculate that emitting 2.8 Tg of methane per year in average (based on the IEA’s global biomethane and biogas generation rate for 2018) can result in an average a global economic loss of 2.4 billion euros in average.
“… emitting 2.8 Tg of methane per year can result in a global economic loss of €2.4billion in average.”
Through improved design, detection, measurement, and repair techniques, much of the observed emissions can be avoided. If we focus on super-emitters, there are some potential quick wins too. We found that the digestate stage and upgrading units need the most attention in this regard. There’s a lot of overlap with oil and natural gas supply chains too – preventing gas venting, reducing flaring activities and designing a closed unit with a vapour recovery system can all contribute to reducing emissions.
Additionally, we need better regulations, continuous emission measurements, and close collaboration with biogas plant operators in order to address methane emissions and meet the Paris Agreement temperature target.
We know what we need to do to tackle those emissions; the important thing is to get started right away. Biomethane is an important renewable energy source, but it could be even better! Combating biomethane emissions is not only significant for meeting Paris Agreement’s target but also boosting the global economy.