Biogas facilities are multi-talented

Interview with Fabienne Thomas, Head of Policy at aeesuisse

Fabienne Thomas

Head of Policy at aeesuisse

What role do agricultural biogas facilities play in climate mitigation in Switzerland?

They play an important role because they can use the manure produced on the farm and convert it into energy right there. They contribute to climate mitigation because the methane is immediately channelled into a closed system and kept out of the atmosphere. 

And with regard to energy supply?

First and foremost, biogas facilities provide gas that can be used as a fuel and for process heat in industry. An additional benefit is the flexibility to generate electricity when it is needed and feed it directly into the public grid. This makes it possible to produce electricity for base load or to cover peak demand. The facilities can produce exactly the type of energy that is needed. They are multi-talented! 

What are the political challenges?

From a political point of view, the expansion of biogas facilities is desirable, especially for feeding biogas into the gas grid. Currently, only 5% of the farmyard manure produced in Switzerland is used for biogas facilities. This potential should be developed. It is always a question of finding the right implementation approach. A fundamental question is whether smaller biogas facilities with a focus on climate mitigation should be used on agricultural farms, or whether larger biogas facilities closer to a gas pipeline are needed. This is still controversial.

Is it a question of spatial planning?

Exactly. The issue of size is currently being discussed at the political level within the framework of the so-called “Mantle Decree” on energy policy. By law, facilities were defined to have a maximum volume of 45,000 tonnes of farmyard manure or other substrates. This allows for the installation of larger facilities that comply with laws and zoning regulations. 

Why are biogas facilities so expensive?

In order to produce large amounts of energy, a significant amount of farmyard manure needs to be processed. As the energy density of slurry and manure is not very high, biogas facilities need to be supplied with large quantities of substrate on a daily basis. This involves a lot of labour, transport, and the need for large digestion and storage tanks, resulting in high overall operating costs. The technical complexity of biogas facilities is therefore relatively high.   

Currently, a biogas facility is only profitable with the support of the feed-in tariff system (Einspeisevergütungs-system, EVS) and the funding of the KliK Foundation. Why is this?

For the reasons outlined above, the costs are too high for farmers to bear alone. Support comes from a variety of sources, making financing complex. The production of electricity is financially supported by the feed-in tariff system. The aim of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy is to promote the most cost-effective electricity production. In terms of climate mitigation, the main focus is on reducing CO₂ and methane emissions and replacing fossil fuels. Here, too, the aim is to implement the most cost-effective measures. Agriculture’s contribution remains uncertain. Although its methane and ammonia emissions have a significant impact on the environment, agricultural policy does not yet provide any direct funding for reduction.

Are there regulatory barriers?

Yes. They are mainly in the area of spatial planning. Biogas facilities are often built in agricultural zones, close to a farm. However, there are many regulations that have to be taken into account during the planning process and can lead to objections.