Harnessing biogas to grow a value chain for farmers

This year, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $10 million grant to C-CHANGE, a partnership of organizations working to address challenges and develop new methods of turning biomass and manure into fuel. C-CHANGE is the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural reGenerative Enterprise.

The consortium includes Iowa State University, Penn State University, Roeslein Alternative Energy, and many others.

Tom Richard, professor of ag and biological engineering at Penn State explains, “The Northern Hemisphere of our planet has a lot of plants growing. In the summer and fall, they pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and overcome some fossil fuel emissions. But that alone is unfortunately not enough. A goal of C-CHANGE is to take advantage of photosynthesis and put it to better use.”

The grant allows C-CHANGE to develop profitable methods to transition land usually devoted to annual crops to renewable energy production with native grasses.

Definitions

  • Natural gas: 95% methane
  • Biogas: 60% methane and 40% CO2
  • Renewable natural gas: biomethane (methane from biogas)

Lisa Schulte-Moore, director of C-CHANGE, explains that the “Grass to Gas” value chain will be the focus.

“It all starts on the farm with farmers wanting to return value to the environment and engagement across the entire value chain,” Schulte-Moore says.

The “Grass to Gas” value chain expands through anaerobic digestion of herbaceous feedstocks combined with manure. In this process, organic matter (animal or food waste) is broken down to produce biogas in the absence of oxygen – typically with a digester.

The outcomes could foster new economic development in rural communities; energy security; reduced greenhouse-gas emissions; improved soil health; and benefits to climate resilience, water quality, flooding, and wildlife habitat across the U.S.

“Why anaerobic digestion of herbaceous feedstock? Because people want healthy soil, clean air and water, abundant wildlife, and market opportunities,” Schulte-Moore explains.

However, certifying the production of environmental benefits for a marketplace is complex.

“Farmers want to grow harvestable crops for markets. Continuous living cover on farms provides environmental benefits and produces harvestable crops. Anaerobic digestion is more scalable and feedstock more flexible than other renewable energy platforms as the energy is dispatachable,” she says.

C-CHANGE is also focused on profitability for farmers.

Integrating winter crops is one practice that could provide economic value while feeding the soil and providing cover year-round. Integrating perennials (like reconstructed prairie) into the farm landscape is another.

Societal Value

Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, says, “What we can demonstrate is that we’re not just capable of producing food, feed, fiber, and now biogas. More importantly, we are the landscape the world needs to meet a whole series of important challenges.”

He says the sustainable development is a focal point for how agriculture can engage and contribute to a renewable natural gas value chain.

“This opportunity is much bigger than biogas. It’s about positioning agriculture as a solution platform that cuts across many of the critical needs that the world is shooting for,” Shea remarks.

Matt Russell, farmer and executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, says the societal value for farmers, small businesses, and rural communities, is to embrace the science, momentum, and climate change that drives the interest and need.

“Farmers are the point of action. We can achieve many goals in the next 10 to 15 years through land use, and biogas is a great example of innovating to those goals,” he says.

Steph Herbstritt, doctorate student at Penn State University, expands upon the opportunities, which also include recreational value. Natural, regenerative systems are gaining in popularity outside of the industry and could lead to tourism and recreation in rural communities that where there was none before.

“Aside from climate change, there are also opportunities for education. To bring people to a greater connection with energy and food systems, especially by capturing waste in communities and using that as feedstock, whether on a small scale with a backyard digester or an entire community,” Herbstritt explains.

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