A Visionary Model for Biogas Projects

Biogas advocates and project developers have been abuzz since mid-July, when the U.S. EPA released a renewable fuel standard (RFS) final rule that allows eligible biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate cellulosic RINs.
By Amanda Bilek | September 23, 2014

Biogas advocates and project developers have been abuzz since mid-July, when the U.S. EPA released a renewable fuel standard (RFS) final rule that allows eligible biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate cellulosic renewable information numbers (RINS). Prior to the rule, biogas transportation projects were eligible to generate advanced biofuel RINS. The cellulosic fuel pool within the RFS is much larger than the advanced biofuel pool. Statutory renewable fuel obligations by 2022 are 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel and 4 billion gallons of advanced biofuel. The EPA is responsible for determining an annual renewable fuel volume obligation for the different fuel pools, and each year has significantly reduced the obligation from statutory requirements because fuel production expectations have fallen short.

Allowing biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate RFS cellulosic credits represents an amazing opportunity for biogas project development. There is an incredible amount of organic waste feedstocks that could be processed in biogas energy systems. Biogas energy systems also present an opportunity to establish perennial feedstocks. I wrote about the topic in my January column, but would like look at what this could mean for the biogas industry by looking at a proposed project with a visionary model.

Readers of Biomass Magazine might already be familiar with a project in northern Missouri developed and constructed by Roeslein Alternative Energy. It has an ambitious vison to produce 50 million diesel gallon equivalents by the end of the decade using biogas from hog manure and energy crops. In addition to producing a large volume of low-carbon transportation fuel from cleaned and compressed biogas, the project aims to restore 30 million acres of highly erodible land to native grasslands over the next 30 years. Grasses and other perennial species would be feedstock input for biogas energy systems.

Achieving this vision will require a multiphase plan. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Rudi Roeslein, CEO of Roeslein Alternative Energy, about the planned approach. The first phase of the project is already underway. RAE and project partner Murphy-Brown of Missouri announced the commencement of the installation of impermeable covers on 88 existing hog manure lagoons. The next project phase will implement biogas cleaning and conditioning equipment to produce a source of renewable natural gas (RNG) and establish a network of distribution centers to provide RNG to vehicle fleets. The third phase will establish a demonstration project using aboveground anaerobic digestion systems to process hog manure and perennial feedstocks.

Murphy Brown, in cooperation with the Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, planted 400 acres of prairie plantings that could be used as part of the testing program. In addition, for the past five years, Roeslein Northern Missouri Real Estate has been replanting and restoring native grassland and prairie on its 1,650-acre farm located within the project area, and has adequate feedstock to test in the demonstration project. The University of Minnesota has been engaged by Roeslein Alternative Energy in the testing of various feedstocks to evaluate the potential methane yield and help evaluate ecological services such feedstock would provide.    

The Roeslein project vision and all of the potential economic and environmental benefits is exciting and inspiring. The project will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing methane from hog manure, sequester carbon in perennial grasslands, and displacing diesel fuel with RNG. The project will also result in improved water quality and establish habitat for wildlife. There are also economic benefits in the form of job creation, local economic activity for construction and operations, and increased farm income from energy crop purchases. 

The EPA’s recent action expanding biogas transportation fuel pathways to generate cellulosic RINs represents an enormous opportunity for project scale-up all across the U.S. This will be the year that we see commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol using corn stover as a feedstock. These first-of-a-kind liquid renewable fuel projects need an enormous amount of feedstock to begin operation.Biogas energy projects could play a role in helping to establish energy crops for future projects. They do not require as much feedstock volume as liquid renewable fuel projects, but could immediately provide a market for producers willing to establish grassland and native perennials on a portion of their land. So many different opportunities are possible for the biogas industry; we just need to reach out and grab them.

Author: Amanda Bilek
Government Affairs Manager, Great Plains Institute