By Richard Russell
Trollhattan, Sweden – Every municipality in the world is facing a crisis – disposing of the incredible amount of waste created by its occupants. Most Canadian provinces have enacted legislation regarding recycling and the diversion of waste from landfills. Grappling with this issue has become a serious concern at the provincial and municipal levels.
From across the Atlantic comes a glimmer of hope and a breath of fresh air. An effort underway in Sweden to divert waste from landfills, clean the air and create a new fuel – all in one simple yet highly effective step – might well prove to be a major part of the solution.
Throughout Europe, in response to EU legislation to cut the amount of organic waste placed in landfills by 35% before 2015, anaerobic digestion is being used to turn organic waste into biogas, natural fertilizers and a small amount of sanitized compost. Anaerobic digestion is simply composting in sealed and engineered conditions. This all-natural solution provides: pollution prevention, nutrient recovery, job creation, a potential profit centre and a sustainable source of high quality clean fuel that can be distributed through existing natural gas pipelines.
As a country, Sweden has taken a leadership position in this area and the process and benefits were pointed out recently to a small delegation of Canadians. Senior representatives from the federal government, Ontario and B.C. governments and the City of Mississauga were hosted by the City of Gothenburg and the Business District of Western Sweden through the Biogas Cities Project.
A municipal waste separation plant which automatically sorts the waste stream. The system operates on an optical basis, separating according to color. Click image to enlarge
Biogas Cities is the brainchild of three retired Volvo employees. Old enough to cash a pension check, but too young to quit, the trio (an engineer, an economist and an environmental manager) are hard at work showing off the experiences learned in Gothenburg to the rest of the world. The Biogas Cities Project preaches the principal of “plagiarize and localize” as officials here happily share their experience with government and municipal leaders from around the world, inviting discussion and the exchange of information and ideas. The Canadians followed similar representations from London, England and California with visits from Paris, Berlin and Vienna planned for the coming weeks.
An articulated Volvo bus, powered by an engine running on biogas, in Gotheburg. Click image to enlarge
They all learned of considerable benefits, environmental and otherwise, to be gained through the proper development of a biogas system. Ever-increasing volumes of waste need to be treated, pollution minimized and traffic controlled. Biogas could be a viable solution to all these issues. The challenges include political co-operation and action, investment at all levels, leadership, public support and incentives (tax and otherwise) to create and sustain support and use.
This region in Sweden is a showcase for the effects of inter-governmental cooperation. Through tax breaks and other incentives it has put in place a long-term price advantage for this new fuel as an incentive for consumers. It has solved the chicken and egg question by building refuelling stations to encourage the purchase of vehicles that use biofuels, rather than wait until there are enough vehicles to justify the infrastructure.
Other incentives include:
- Using procurement policies to buy and encourage the use of clean vehicles. Almost 60% of the vehicles owned or operated by the City of Gothenburg are “clean” on the way to a target of 90% by 2008. Suppliers who use clean vehicles get preferential treatment.
- Busses and refuse collection vehicles are privately-owned, but contracts demand they be “clean”.
- Free street parking for clean vehicles.
- Clean commercial vehicles are permitted to use bus lanes and receive special parking and offloading privileges.
- Special taxi bays and priority for clean taxis.
- Grants and other investment incentives are available for private companies, municipal governments and city administrations for everything from the purchase of bio-fuel vehicles to the construction of biogas refuelling stations.
- Tax incentives keep the cost of biogas 30% – 40% below other transportation fuels.
- Long-term price security is guaranteed by governments through promises to maintain the gap between biogas and regular liquid gas taxes.
- Commercial vehicles more than eight years old are not permitted within the city limits without a special permit, unless they have been upgraded to “clean” status.
A typical municipal-operated refueling site for public transit busses. They are plugged in here overnight to refill their tanks.
Gothenburg and many other towns and cities throughout Europe have invested in their own biogas production facilities. Methane production is sent to special refuelling stations, where busses and other commercial vehicles are refilled overnight. The digestate produced by these plants is used for agricultural purpose, and that which is unsuitable for agricultural use, is used on public lands and parks, golf courses etc.
Small biogas facilities are in place in California and the gas used to power thermal generating plants – producing electricity for farmers and ranchers. Communities around the world are studying the viability of a series of biogas production facilities in major beef and dairy regions linked by pipeline to retail outlets. After all, each dairy cow produces about 50 kilos of manure a day. This product, left to decay, leaches toxins into the earth and groundwater and emits hundreds of tons of methane gas into the atmosphere each year. The City of Los Angeles is studying the feasibility as it relates to the landfill issue and diversion of organic waste.
Biofuels cost more to produce than fossil fuel and are about 20% less efficient, but the benefits are pretty compelling:
- It burns much more cleanly than any other fuel currently in use or under consideration – other than hydrogen which is a ways off yet.
- The production of biogas greatly reduces the emission of gasses linked to global warming
- It reduces dependence on fossil fuels
And from a municipal point of view it allows a truly significant diversion of organic waste from landfills.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Richard Russell looks at the future of biogas. It can be combined with gasoline or natural gas without any engine modifications and can serve as a bridge to the hydrogen age because it readily accepts a mixture of up to 10% hydrogen.