Subsidy-free biogas? Tapping the cheese-to-grid renewables opportunity
Subsidy-free biogas featured article in businessgreen.com
AD developer’s MD Richard Gueterbock explains why Lake District Biogas site demonstrates the circular economy in practice
And while the company has not quite yet managed to develop entirely subsidy-free facilities, it is certainly getting closer to the goal, having now worked on 10 projects of various size and specifications, including Nestlé’s sweet making factory in Newcastle and drinks giant Diageo’s Glendullan distillery in Scotland, all the while posting steady, year-on-year growth.
Moreover, it is also pushing boundaries with its technology. One of its most recent ventures in Cumbria has seen it develop Europe’s first cheese-to-grid plant, which won the Circular Economy Technology of the Year gong at the BusinessGreen Technology Awards in December.
“It was particularly important for us to win the Circular Economy award, as that is what we are trying to get companies to look at – how they can improve their resource use and make better use of their residues,” explains Gueterbock.
Located on dairy giant First Milk’s Aspatria milk processing site – one of the UK’s largest cheese creameries – the Lake District Biogas plant converts unwanted bio-degradable cheese residues known as whey into valuable biogas and is reducing the site’s fossil fuel use by more than 25 per cent.
In addition to being the largest facility of its kind in Europe, the £10m plant is also the only European creamery site producing bio-methane generated entirely from process residues, without including non-dairy feedstocks.
In operation for just over a year, the Lake District Biogas plant is expected to provide First Milk with around £2m a year in net savings/income, meaning a swift payback on investment of five years – far quicker than many other renewable energy investments.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the facility is that it is connected directly to the gas grid, which enables a far more efficient use of biogas energy than using it for heating.
“It’s the most efficient system,” says Gueterbock. “That’s the attraction of the Lake District project – putting gas into the gas grid is much more efficient than putting it into CHP [combined heat and power] and losing quite a lot of the energy value dissipated as heat.”
Indeed, each cubic metre of feedstock from the Lake District creamery generates around 14 metres cubed of gas, which is converted to 16,000 metres cubed per day of biomethane for the grid.
Overall, Gueterbock argues, the Lake District creamery project represents a prime example of a closed loop system of the future operating in the UK today.
“From that factory there are now four outputs,” he explains. “There is the cheese that is sold to the retailers, there is the biogas that is used by the factory and the local community and there is clean water which goes into the river. Then finally there is a modest amount of biosolids that is used by local farmers as a source of nutrients to grow the grass, which is then eaten by the cows to make the cheese. So it is a true circular economy.”
Looking forward, the company is hoping to potentially build another four or five on-site plants in the coming year – including replicating the Lake District technology at another UK creamery – while it has also secured EU funding to research AD plants working at ambient temperatures, which would reduce the energy use of technology, curbing carbon emissions and costs still further.
“If we can start getting gas-to-grid upgrade technology to work at a smaller scale, too, then we can start looking at turning gas into vehicle fuel, so the circularity becomes even greater,” adds Gueterbock. “We are looking at the possibility of running milk collection lorries on compressed biomethane.”
Ultimately, says Gueterbock, AD and the wider renewable energy sector has to be made to work in environment where there are no or very little subsidies.
“We are pretty confident about achieving that,” he says. “The company is looking at one or two projects at the moment that could potentially be subsidy-free.”
By offering closed loop operations, reduced emissions and a fast return on investment through on-site AD – soon potentially without the aid of subsidies – Clearfleau is clearly milking the maximum benefits from renewable energy.