SONCHAMP, France (AP) — In lush fields southwest of Paris, farmers are joining Europe’s fight to break free from Russian gas.
They will soon turn on the tap at a new facility where crops and agricultural waste are mixed and fermented to produce “biogas”. It is one of the energy solutions being promoted on the continent that wants to stifle funding for Russia’s war in Ukraine by no longer paying billions for Russian fossil fuels.
Small rural gas plants that provide power to hundreds or thousands of nearby homes are not going to – at least anytime soon – supplant the huge flows to Europe of Russian gas that powers economies, factories, businesses and homes. And critics of using crops to make gas argue that farmers should focus on growing food, especially when prices are soaring amid the fallout from war in Ukraine, one of the breadbaskets of the world.
Yet biogas is part of the puzzle of reducing Europe’s energy dependence.
The European Biogas Association says the European Union could rapidly increase the production of biomethane, which is pumped into natural gas networks. An investment of 83 billion euros ($87.5 billion) – which at current market prices is less than what the 27 EU countries pay Russia each year for piped natural gas – would increase biomethane production tenfold by 2030 and could replace about a fifth of what the bloc imported from Russia last year, the group says.
Farmers around the Parisian village of Sonchamp believe their new gas plant will help detach Europe from the Kremlin.
“It’s not consistent to go and buy gas from those who are waging war on our friends,” said Christophe Robin, one of the six investors in the plant, which grows wheat, rapeseed, sugar beets and chickens.
“If we want to consume green energy and avoid the flow and supply of Russian gas, we don’t really have a choice. We have to find alternative solutions,” he said.
Biogas is produced by the fermentation of organic matter – usually crops and waste. Robin compared the process to leaving food in a container for too long.
“When you open it, it goes ‘Poof.’ Only here we don’t open it. We recover the gas that comes from the fermentation,” he said.
The gas from their plant could meet the needs of 2,000 homes. It will be purified into biomethane and injected into a pipe to the neighboring town of Rambouillet, heating its hospital, swimming pool and homes.
“That’s cool,” Robin said. “Children will benefit from local gas.”
As in the rest of Europe, the production of bio-methane in France is still low. But it is booming. Nearly three biomethane production sites are commissioned every week on average in France and their number has increased from just 44 at the end of 2017 to 365 last year. The volume of gas they produced for the national grid almost doubled in 2021 compared to the previous year and was enough for 362,000 households.
The French government has taken several steps to accelerate the development of biomethane since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. represent 20% of French gas consumption by 2030, i.e. more gas than France imported from Russia last year.
Sonchamp farmers took out loans of 5 million euros ($5.3 million) and received a state grant of 1 million euros to build their factory, Robin said. They signed a 15-year contract with the utility company Engie, with a fixed price for their gas. This will limit their ability to take advantage of high gas prices now, but provide them with a stable income.
“We’re not going to be billionaires,” Robin said.
The workers are finishing the construction and the factory is almost ready to be connected to the grid. Heaps of agricultural waste – wheat husks, pulped sugar beets, onion peelings, even chicken droppings – were prepared to feed into the giant bubble-shaped fermentation tanks.
Winter barley specially grown to make gas will represent around 80% of the 30 tonnes of organic matter that will be fed into the plant each day.
Robin insists barley won’t interfere with the cultivation of other food crops, which worries critics. Instead of one food crop a year, they will now have three harvests every two years – with barley on top, sandwiched in between, Robin said.
In Germany, the largest biogas producer in Europe, the government is reducing the cultivation of crops for fuels. The share of maize allowed in biogas plants will be lowered from 40% to 30% by 2026. Financial incentives will be provided for operators to use waste such as manure and straw instead.
Germany is estimated to have more than 9,500 power plants, many of which are small units supplying rural villages with heat and electricity.
Andrea Horbelt, spokesperson for the German biogas association, said biomethane production could be doubled in a few years but would not come cheap.
“Using biogas for electricity is more expensive than solar and wind power, and always will be,” she said.
At the end of their gas-making process, Sonchamp farmers will also obtain nitrogen- and potassium-rich waste from the fermenters which they will use to fertilize their fields, thereby reducing their consumption of industrial fertilizers.
“It’s a circular economy and it’s green. I like that,” Robin said. “It’s a great adventure.”