SONSHAM, France (AP) – In lush fields southwest of Paris, farmers join Europe’s struggle for liberation from Russian gas.
Soon they will open the tap of a new facility where crops and agricultural waste are shredded and fermented to produce “biogas”. This is one of the energy solutions advancing on a continent that wants to stop funding Russia’s war in Ukraine by no longer paying billions for Russian fossil fuels.
Small rural gas plants, which supply energy to hundreds or thousands of nearby homes, are not going to – at least in the near future – displace huge flows of Russian gas to Europe, which supplies the economy, factories, businesses and homes. And critics of the use of cereals for gas say farmers should focus on growing food – especially when prices rise amid the fallout of Ukraine, one of the world’s hardest.
However, biogas is part of the puzzle of how to reduce Europe’s energy dependence.
The European Biogas Association says the EU could quickly increase biomethane production, which is pumped into the natural gas network. Investments of 83 billion euros ($ 87.5 billion) – which at current market prices less than 27 EU countries pay Russia annually for gas through pipelines – will lead to a tenfold increase in biomethane production by 2030 and could replace about a fifth of that. that the bloc imported from Russia last year, the group said.
Farmers around the village of Sonsham in the Paris region believe their new gas plant will do everything possible to untie Europe from the Kremlin.
“It’s unwise to go and buy gas from people who are at war with our friends,” said Christoph Robin, one of six investors in a plant that grows wheat, canola, sugar beet and chicken.
“If we want to consume green (energy) and avoid the flows and contributions of Russian gas, we really have no choice. We have to find alternative solutions, ”he said.
Biogas is produced by fermenting organic materials – usually crops and waste. Robin likened the process to food left in a container for too long.
“When you open it, it sounds ‘poof.’ Only here, we do not open. We collect gas that comes from fermentation, ”he said.
Gas from their plant can meet the needs of 2,000 homes. It will be purified into biomethane and introduced into a pipeline to the nearby city of Rambouillet, heating its hospital, swimming pool and homes.
“It’s cool,” Robin said. “Kids will benefit from local gas.”
As in the rest of Europe, biomethane production in France is still small. But it thrives. Nearly three biomethane production sites on average go online every week in France, and their number has grown from 44 at the end of 2017 to 365 last year. The volume of gas they extracted for the national network in 2021 has almost doubled compared to the previous year and it was enough for 362 thousand homes.
The French government has taken several steps to accelerate the development of biomethane since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The industry claims that biomethane provides almost 1% of France’s needs in 2021, but this year the figure will increase to at least 2% and could account for 20% of French gas consumption by 2030, which will be more than France imported last year from Russia.
Robin said Sonchamp farmers took 5 million euros ($ 5.3 million) in loans and received a state subsidy of 1 million euros to build their plant. They signed a 15-year contract with the utility company Engie with a fixed price for gas. This will limit their ability to profit from high gas prices, but provide a stable income.
“We will not be billionaires,” Robin said.
Workers are finishing construction, and the plant is almost ready to be connected to the grid. Heaps of agricultural waste – wheat husks, sugar beets, onion peels, even chicken manure – are prepared to be fed into giant bubble-like fermentation tanks.
Winter barley, specially grown for gas, will make up about 80% of the 30 tons of organic material that will come to the plant every day.
Robin insists that barley will not interfere with the cultivation of other crops, which worries critics. Instead of one food crop a year they will now harvest three crops every two years – with barley as an extra, sandwiched between them, Robin said.
In Germany, Europe’s largest biogas producer, the government is cutting back on growing crops for fuel. The share of corn allowed in biogas plants will be reduced from 40% to 30% by 2026. Financial incentives will be provided for operators to use waste such as manure and straw instead.
In Germany, there are an estimated more than 9,500 factories, many of which are small, providing rural villages with heat and electricity.
Andrea Horbelt, a spokeswoman for the German Biogas Association, said biomethane production could double in a few years, but would also not be cheap.
“Using biogas to generate electricity is more expensive than solar and wind, and will always be so,” she said.
Upon completion of the gas production process, Sonchamp farmers will also receive nitrogen- and potassium-rich waste from fermenters that they will use to fertilize their fields, reducing the consumption of industrial fertilizers.
“It’s a circular economy, and it’s green. It makes me happy, “said Robin.” It’s a wonderful adventure. “
Jordans reported from Berlin.
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