Last week we launched our Green Gas for Britain report and started our campaign to change government thinking, on where Britain gets it gas. It’s something we’ve been working on for a couple of years. This is my personal perspective on that.
Ecotricity began life in 1995, born of the realisation that the conventional way of making electricity, by burning fossil fuels, was the biggest single source of climate change. Our proposed solution was a new kind of electricity, the green kind.
We were the world’s first green electricity company, and while the technology to make green electricity was relatively new, we could see a potential future where all electricity was made this way – utilizing the Wind, Sun and Sea. What we couldn’t see was a renewable alternative for gas, and for many years we held the view that we had to simply wean ourselves off of this rather versatile energy source, and shift heat loads from gas to electricity. That changed for us in 2010 when we bumped into the concept of green gas – gas made by the anaerobic digestion of organic material, which could then be ‘scrubbed up’ and put into the gas grid. It was a direct parallel to green electricity. And our missing link.
There was no green gas available in Britain at that time. The gas we’d found was a by-product of a factory in Holland.
We introduced the green gas concept to Britain that year with our green gas tariff, and in the process we took a big evolutionary step: we moved from being a green electricity company to a fully-fledged green energy company, from having half the answer to having the whole answer. It was one of our most exciting moments.
At the same time, we set about making plans to build our own sources of green gas in Britain using our ‘bills into mills’ model – the tagline that describes quite well our core approach, harnessing our customers’ energy bills to build new green energy mills.
The main issue we struggled with was feedstock, what to put into our green gas mills. At one end of the spectrum we could see food waste, at the other end energy crops.
Food waste is arguably better used to make gas than being sent to landfill, but it’s not without its drawbacks. As with waste to energy schemes, one of the big downsides is the long term nature of waste contracts that prevent progressive steps to actually reduce food waste – something vitally important. And for a company that campaigns as we do for the end of meat and dairy consumption, for environmental, ethical and health reasons, the blurred lines between animal and plant food waste presented another problem.
At the other end of the spectrum, energy crops had their own very obvious problems – the use of land that would otherwise be used to grow food and the intensive agriculture approach intrinsic to it – that are at the root of so much environmental degradation and species depletion in Britain today. The Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last forty years. Over a similar period on UK farmland (which covers 75% of our country), bird species have fallen by half and butterflies by one third.
Energy crops were definitely out for us.
Food waste seemed at least possible in limited circumstances and we carried on investigating technologies for AD and gas scrubbing while looking for sites and making all the usual development steps.
Then, a couple of years ago, we came across a new idea that held the answer to the feedstock problem and so much more, something that brought a whole new dimension to the potential that making green gas had to offer. The idea is to use grass as the feedstock.
Grass has many advantages. One of the biggest is the quality of the fuel – using grass can yield twice as much gas per tonne of feedstock than food waste, and the gas is cleaner and significantly easier to ‘scrub up’ to grid quality. Grass can be grown on marginal farmland and it can be grown as a break crop on food producing land. It doesn’t need to compete with food grown for human consumption.
It’s not based on intensive farming or a monoculture either, it needs no artificial fertilizers or pesticides – and in the process of growing it we’ll create wildlife habitats, making room for nature. Those new habitats are desperately needed in Britain.
Grass for gas also offers the potential for farmers to diversify from raising animals for human consumption – an industry that is not only in decline and economically very challenging, but one that produces a significant amount of the world’s climate change gases.
Over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute. The United Nations says that farming livestock is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”.
Making green gas, creating room for nature and reducing emissions from livestock through farming diversification, is a win on multiple fronts.
An added benefit of the system is that all of the fertilizer required for the land on which we will grow our grass is produced as a by-product of our gas mills – it’s a closed loop system in that respect, and in the process takes the land into organic status.
The other major feature of this new approach is one of resource scale. Looking at data from DEFRA on the amount of the various land types available in Britain, there is enough land available for us to make enough green gas to power all of the homes in Britain – our entire domestic consumption. That’s a high level view and there will be constraints that we can’t yet see, for any given site or area – but it’s a big potential target.
This would take 5,000 of our proposed gas mills, which are each 10MW in capacity. Each of them uses 5,000 acres of land, ideally within a short radius – and, coincidentally, each will produce enough gas to power 5,000 homes. An acre per home to make our own gas is an interesting metric.
The benefits of this potential level of green gas development are significant. Through feedstock contracts, each gas mill will contribute £3m per year, or £60 million in their operating lifetime, to the local economy.
With some 30 jobs per gas mill, we’re looking at the creation of 150,000 new and sustainable jobs, vast areas of land turned into wildlife habitats(25 million acres), and the avoided cost of £8billion a year in fossil fuels going up in smoke. If green gas can pull its weight in this way, we have the added advantage of not needing to switch significant heat loads from gas to electricity, meaning we need to make less electricity – we get a blended outcome, a mixture of technologies.
Making our gas from grass at anything like this scale would be a significant boost to efforts to abate climate change, to more sustainable farming and food production and to making Britain more energy independent – as well as a significant part of our nascent green economy.
Looking to the more immediate future, by 2020, Britain needs to meet 12% of its heating demand through renewable energy. The latest figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that we’re currently at 4.9%, meaning we have a shortfall of 7.1%, or 42.5 TWh per year.
Grass-fed green gas mills could plug this gap. It would take just over 500 of them, or 10% of what we could theoretically build in Britain. In the process we’d create 15,000 new jobs and put £1.5billion each year into local economies. There’s not much holding us back. The technology to turn grass into gas is mature: anaerobic digestion has been around a long time. Gas scrubbing units are less established, but it’s not rocket science.
The one thing this new industry needs is consistent government support through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This government’s record on renewable energy is not good, but with the major benefits of green gas accruing to the farming community, and it being able to plug the gap in our 2020 target, perhaps this is one form of renewable energy that will buck the trend.
As I write this, the government is consulting on changes to the RHI. One of the proposed changes is to limit, or stop altogether, any crop content in the feedstock of gas mills. If this means energy crops, we’re all for it: the problems with that are well understood and the government is right to seek to control its use. What the definition of crop shouldn’t include, however, is grass – as it’s not a crop for human consumption and has none of the problems that stem from energy crop agriculture.
It’s a big opportunity for Britain – using grass as a feedstock to make our own gas. It’s a new idea too – so new that the danger is the government will overlook it and kill it off along with energy crops. Let’s hope not.
As Bob Dylan almost said, the answer, my friend, is growin’ in the wind.