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A review of key points of an industrial biogas plant.

A European perspective
Miguel A. Sanz-Bobi, Senior Member, IEEE, Fernando de Cuadra, Carlos Batlle
Institute for Research in Technology (IIT)
Comillas Pontifical University, ICAI-School of Engineering
Madrid, Spain
AbstractThis paper reviews the main technical, operational and
economical aspects of a biogas plant. The analysis is focused on
the key points of the biogas production process, the current
situation of biogas plants in Europe and the advantages, risks
and new trends of the production and use of biogas. The paper
offers an integrated view of the different aspects involved in a
biogas plant as source of renewable energy in contrast with other
more analyzed renewable energy sources based mainly on wind
or solar energy.
Keywords- biogas; biogas plant; organic matter; green energy
production;combined-heat and power system



Nowadays, renewable energy production is an extremely

important topic in many interconnected fields such as research,
energy production, social acceptance, reduction of the use of
non-renewable sources of energy, government strategies, etc. A
great deal of effort is being made to use energy coming from
renewable energy sources. The renewable energies which are
most frequently used in the world are wind and solar, and in
particular, energy coming from the wind is the most extended.
Other renewable sources of energy are being used in wellknown operative technical processes but for different reasons
they are not as extended as those previously mentioned, such as
for example, the industrial biogas plants. This paper reviews
the key aspects of biogas production in an industrial biogas
plant in order to obtain an integrated picture about their
advantages and disadvantages at present. In particular, the
current situation of such plants in Europe will be considered.
The paper is organized around the following sections.
Section II describes the biogas production, its requirements,
technology and use of the biogas obtained. Section III analyzes
the basic economics of a biogas plant. Section IV describes the
experience of the biogas plants throughout Europe. Section V
includes the conclusions and key points of the industrial biogas


A. What is biogas? How is it produced?

Biogas is a mixture of mainly methane gas (CH4) and
carbon dioxide gas (CO2). If this is compared with natural gas,
in which the methane content is about 90-95%, it is possible to
conclude that biogas is a low grade natural gas. As a

consequence of the previous assertion, the energetic potential

of biogas is much lower than that of natural gas. Four essential
ingredients are required for the production of biogas [1], [2]:
organic matter coming from any organic source, bacteria,
anaerobic conditions and heat.
The process of biogas production requires a large amount
of micro organisms, (bacteria), which are able to use the stored
energy in carbon hydrates, fats and proteins under anaerobic
conditions for their metabolism. Bacteria use the organic matter
as a food source for producing methane by the decomposition
of organic matter. There are many different types of sources of
organic matter that can be used for biogas production.
Essentially the more commonly used are manure coming from
farm animals, wasted food, wastewater, wood and agricultural
products such as corn silage. The amount of potential biogas
produced depends on the amount of dry organic matter
contained in the feedstock used. Different types of organic
matter can be mixed together for biogas generation in an
industrial biogas plant.
Energy crops have higher contents of dry matter [3] and for
this reason they have been a target source in biogas production
by industrial plants over the last years. In particular, the dry
organic matter content of corn silage, one of the most
frequently used agricultural substrate, consists of around 35%
of the total volume.
The second ingredient needed for biogas production is
bacteria, which are needed in order to convert the fats,
carbohydrates and proteins contained in the organic matter to
simple acids such as acetic and propionic acid. Then, a second
type of bacteria transforms the acids to methane and carbon
dioxide. These processes occur simultaneously. The bacteria
are commonly present in manure, in wasted food or wastewater
and in agricultural produce harvested with green parts such as
corn silage or similar green plants.
In order to fulfil the expected function of the bacteria in the
production of biogas, two key conditions are necessary: an
anaerobic atmosphere (without oxygen) and heat. The
temperature has to be in the range 35-40C (within the
mesophylic range of operation, this is typical), or between 5560C (thermophilic range). The pH-value should be neutral up
to a low alkaline value.

Biogas is produced on an industrial scale through the use of

different technologies depending on the raw material to be
used, the use of the biogas and the scale of production [4].
In any case, one component which is essential in all the
existing configurations of biogas production plants is the
digester. This is the core of any biogas plant regardless of its
size. The digester is a closed recipient where the raw material

is introduced, in its atmosphere there is no oxygen and the

temperature has to be constant at over 20C. Fig. 1 shows a
scheme including the main functional relationships among
components [5] in an industrial biogas plant. In this scheme the
main inputs required and possible output results are also








Local handling
Remote maintenance
Remote monitoring


Local handling
Remote maintenance
Remote monitoring





Figure 1. Functional scheme of an industrial biogas plant

B. Features of industrial biogas plants

Industrial biogas plants are located in rural sites where there
is very easy access to the raw material used in the anaerobic
process: agricultural products and animal manure coming from
farms in the area. This suggests that these plants are not close
to urban areas. In these plants wet fermentation is used because
in this mode the agricultural material can be mixed with liquid
substrates such as manure, complementing the energetic
potential of the substrate.
At any type of biogas plant, including industrial plants, the
technology used is very mature and well known [5]. It is not so
sophisticated, but in any case it is necessary to take care of the
equipment because their components can degrade under the
normal working conditions of the plant. Any biogas plant
requires an important effort to monitor its behaviour. There are
two main reasons for performing this important task. First, the
digestion requires special conditions to be developed in an
optimum way. Any deviation of these conditions can reduce
the potential amount of biogas to be obtained, raw material can
be wasted and non-expected residuals could appear. Another
important reason for continuous monitoring is that the products
resulting from the digestion are biogas, other types of gases and
residuals that if they are not managed with care, they can affect
the safety and environmental conditions of people and the
natural environment. In particular, reliability is a particular
focus of attention for agricultural biogas plants, where
permanent attention and surveillance by operators are not

practical nor feasible. The optimization of biogas plants is one

of the current research topics [6] that will contribute to obtain
the best performance and the maximum benefit.
Over the last years different concepts for the organisation
of biogas plants have emerged [2] such as:
Decentralised plants on farms producing electricity and
using heat (but the use of heat is often not obvious)
Decentralised plants in combination with biogas
pipelines, transporting the biogas to a cogeneration unit
situated in proximity to a district heating system or
industries that demand heat for its productive process.
Therefore the cogeneration can make full use of the heat.
[7] presents an interesting case analyzing the optimal
location of biogas plants in a decentralised scheme
according to the geographical resources and industries in
a region.
Decentralised plants delivering the raw gas in biogas
pipelines to a upgrading station and injecting the
biomethane in a gas grid. The biomethane can be used for
cogeneration, transportation fuel or high tech process
Centralised plants
availability [8], [9].






The efficient production of biogas not only needs a biogas

plant, but also an integrated infrastructure such as power lines,

biogas pipelines, upgrading stations and heat networks, in order

to be able to use the energy of the cogeneration units.
C. Biogas uses
The produced biogas can be used in many ways
(combustion for the production of electricity and heat, to be fed
into a gas grid, in fuel cells or even as fuel) [10], [11]. The
most common alternative is the utilisation in a gas engine for
the production of electricity and heat. The produced electricity
can be fed into the public electricity grid, receiving funded
tariffs for it. In order to optimize the utilisation of the produced
biogas and to maximize the profit of the plant, the utilisation of
the excess of heat from the combustion of the gas should be
considered. This heat can be used as process heat for the
digestion process or for heating parts of the plant or adjacent
agricultural buildings (e.g. stables). The best option for using
the excess of heat is to sell it to an external heat consumer [7],
[12], [13].
The typical use of biogas in a gas engine is based on a
cogeneration system or a Combined Heat & Power System
(CHP). In order to use the biogas as input in a gas engine, its
impurities have to be removed. Particularly it is important to
remove the hydrogen sulphide (H2S ) contained in the biogas.
The limits for H2S for biogas used in gas engines lie between
100 and 500 ppm, depending on the manufacturer. The lower
the amount of H2S, the higher is the lifespan of the gas engine.
In addition to the desulphurisation, it is also necessary to dry
up the biogas.
Biogas is very attractive due to its versatility of use in
different markets such as electricity, heat, vehicle fuels and
reuse in agriculture. In fact biogas can be used for:

likewise be a different set of reduction figures if the biogas is

used for transport purposes and replaces diesel or petrol. In
general, if biogas is used instead of coal, it is considered that 1
m3 of biogas could produce 2.5 kWh of electricity and the CO2
reduction can be around 1600 g/m3 biogas. In the case that the
heat is used, 400 g of CO2 are reduced for every m3 of biogas
used for heat production instead using coal.
An additional significant advantage of biogas, in
comparison with other renewable energy sources, is that it is a
controllable source of energy. Solar and wind power plants
depend on the environmental conditions and they are operative
if there is sun or wind respectively, but these condition do not
have human control. This is not the case of biogas. It can be
stored and used when it is required. Due to this fact, biogas is
an important point of current research because it can be used in
different alternative schemes as a complement of other energy
sources. An attractive complementary use is the production of
electricity from biogas in high peak periods of electrical
demand as part of a network of distributed generation [16].
Another interesting alternative use of biogas is as complement
of other renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar
plants. In periods of no wind, the production of a wind turbine
could be replaced by the use of biogas guarantying the
continuity of this integrated source of energy [17], [18].


While there is no question about the technical feasibility of

an industrial biogas plant, its economical feasibility is always a
point of important concern that must be carefully analyzed.

Production of electricity and heat (cogeneration)

Production of electricity alone

Production of heat alone

Upgrading to biomethane for: injection in the gas grid,

transportation fuel, high tech process energy, raw
material for the chemical industry

It is difficult to issue a general rule valid for any type and

configuration of biogas plants, but under the more extended
scheme of the use of biogas for electricity production, the
investment required for building and maintaining an industrial
biogas plant in production, hardly compensates for the
revenues coming from selling the electricity produced. A
simple example with real values is presented as an illustration
of this assertion. The results in this example where obtained
using the worksheet [19] and simplifying the information
resulting from it.

The main advantage of biogas is the production of green

energy, but this is not the only advantage. Biogas has other
advantages for the producer and for society.

Table 1 shows the case of an industrial biogas plant that

uses corn silage as the main raw material due to its high
contents of organic matter.

If biogas is produced using waste raw material such as

manure, wasted food or waste water, the production of biogas
contributes to the reduction of pathogens and odour that can
cause health problems, or at the very least, mitigate an
uncomfortable environment [14].
In general, the use of biogas as an energy source is widely
considered as CO2 neutral because the CO2 released during
combustion of the biogas is almost the same CO2 that was
assimilated during photosynthesis to create organic matter in
energy crops. In this way the burning of biogas is simply a
recycling of CO2 in the biosphere [15]. However in addition to
this, the energy production itself also helps to reduce the
emission of greenhouse gases; its magnitude depends on which
fuel is being replaced. If biogas replaces oil, less oil will be
used and there will be a reduction in emissions. There will




Raw Material
Corn silage per year
Hectares required


tonnes per year

DM amount (Total Solid)


Kg TS/year

organic Total Solid (oTS)


Kg TS/year

Possible biogas yield



Methane in biogas



In the case that there is cattle manure available that can be

mixed with the corn silage into the digester, the potential
production of biogas is presented in Table II.
According to the information included in Tables I and II,
and considering typical ratios of a CHP system performance,
the expected results of the plant for this case example are
included in Table III. An average period of operation of 8000
hours per year and an average price for selling electricity of
0.035 per kWh were considered.



Raw Material


Available cattle manure



tonnes per year

DM amount (Total Solid)


Kg TS/year

organic Total Solid (oTS)


Kg TS/year

Possible biogas yield



Methane in biogas






Plant Data
Methane in biogas corn silage







Average biogas yield



Average energy yield



Methane in biogas cattle manure

estimated electrical power output



estimated thermal power output









estimated electrical power consumption

produced amount of compost TS=25%
produced amount of digested liquid
Revenues on energy
Revenues from selling electricity


the price will depend on the type of agreements established

between farmers and the biogas plant. Very often the farmers
are also stakeholders of the plant and the prices could be
different if there is a long time guarantee for them that the
whole production of corn is acquired by the plant. References
[20], [21], [22] evaluate prices for corn silage between 21 and
36 per tonne of which the range is due to different reasons
such as variability of the prices of corn grain, seasonal factors
and type of selected hybrid.
The most important costs involved in an industrial biogas
plant correspond to the initial investment required for building
and developing the plant, and in a longer perspective, the
required maintenance and operation costs. According to
different sources of information coming from several
manufacturers, the cost of building an industrial biogas plant
ranges among different values depending on the size of the
plant. For a medium size biogas plant, such as the one in the
example, the cost of the plant is between 4 and 5 M and its
operational and maintenance costs can be around 50 and 70 k
per year.
The previous data shows that the equilibrium between costs
and revenues could be reached after many years of operation.
This does not mean that an industrial biogas is not profitable,
because in fact the number of biogas plants is increasing
continuously each year. In order to shorten this time where the
equilibrium between costs and revenues is reached,
governments, regional agencies and municipalities around the
world, and in particular in Europe, are proposing different
incentives to promote the development of biogas plants. The
most important reason for promoting the construction of biogas
plants is based on its renewable nature that can substitute part
of the conventional energy sources, but this is not the only
reason. As a differential feature of biogas in comparison with
other renewable energies, it offers in parallel other benefits
affecting the environment and society. Biogas plants can use as
raw material residual products such as agricultural products,
manure, livestock, food processing residuals, etc. which if they
are not reused or eliminated can suppose an important problem
with environmental and health consequences. All these primary
benefits are difficult to evaluate, but certainly contribute to the
revenues of the biogas plant.

As it can be observed, an important amount of heat is being

generated from which the possible revenue from selling it was
not considered. This is one of the worse scenarios where the
heat cannot be reused. Also revenues from products resulting
from the digestion of the organic matter, mainly compost that
can be used as fertilizer, were not taken into account.
In our example the main costs are coming from the initial
investment for building and starting the biogas plant, its
maintenance and the cost of the raw materials required as
inputs for the plant. The cost of the required animal manure
normally is reduced to the cost of transport from the farm to the
plant and in some cases it does not exist due to the proximity or
agreements between the parts. In the case of the use of corn
silage as raw material in the biogas plant, as was considered in
the example, its cost has to be taken into account. Once again


In Europe, biogas production has increased progressively

over the last years driven by the EU (European Union) target of
meeting 20 % of the final energy consumption with renewable
energies and the guidelines set forth in the EU Directive
2008/98/EC concerning the handling of waste.
On the basis of these political objectives, many countries in
Europe have introduced incentive programmes for the
generation of power from biogas (feed-in tariffs for electricity
from biogas, green certificates, tenders or grants for the use of
energy crops) [23]. In Europe, the general objective of any
RES-E (electricity generation from renewable energy sources)
support mechanism is to enhance and speed up the learning
curves of the currently known RES-E, in order to fully
accomplish the objective of mitigating -as soon as
economically possible- global warming. In the particular

context of the European Union, the chosen path to contribute to

this objective has been to commit to, among others, exigent
renewable targets.
As it was mentioned, the European Commission Directive
2009/28/EC establishes mandatory national targets consistent
with a 20% share of energy from renewable sources and a 10 %
share of energy from renewable sources in transport in
Community energy consumption by 2020. Although the
situation could change, to date, the still comparatively higher
cost of RES-E technologies has made it virtually impossible for
them to grow without regulatory intervention. Thus, different
support mechanisms have been implemented in Europe and
worldwide. In this context, the best way to design subsidy
regimes to ensure the proper development of RES-E is still an
unsolved issue. Currently, there are two different types of
support methods:
Indirect methods. Implicit payments or discounts as well
as institutional support tools that include: research and
infrastructure or services, and positive discriminatory rules
(regulations facilitating grid access for RES-E power, RESE dispatch priority in the EU and others: net metering,
building codes, etc.).
Direct methods. Investment supports, such as capital
grants, tax exemptions or reductions on the purchase of
goods and operating support mechanisms, i.e. price
subsidies, obligations, tenders and tax exemptions on
These latter alternatives are often classified into two
different categories, the price-based supports, which fix the
price to be paid for renewable electricity (e.g. feed-in tariffs or
feed-in premiums), and quantity-based supports, which
determine a specific amount of electricity to be produced by
Tradable Green Certificates (TGC) also referred to as
Renewable Obligations or Renewable Portfolio Standards
(RPS) in the US, establish quota requirements for consumers,
suppliers, and/or generators to ensure that a portion of their
electricity comes from RES-E. Tradable certificates are
awarded for every unit produced from RES-E; these certificates
are then bought by those required to comply with the RES-E
quota. Several options exist in the design and implementation
of TGC and, also, of the tariffs in Europe [24].
In this context, power generation from biogas grew
between 2008 and 2009 by almost 18 % and accounted for a
total of 25,170 GigaWatt hours (GWh) in 2009. The total
energy extraction from biogas rose over the same period by
some 4.3 % to 8,346 ktoe (kilotonnes of oil equivalent).
Around 52% of the plants produced biogas from agricultural
waste, while landfills and sewage treatment plants generated 36
%, or 12 % of the biogas in the EU. In 2009, the largest biogas
producers in Europe (in thousands of tonnes of oil equivalent
or ktoe) were Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and
the Netherlands. Rapid and dynamic growth is being observed
in Greece, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and

Reference [25] includes interesting data corresponding to

the production of biogas, electricity and heat in Europe in
2008/2009. They offer a good idea about the development of
biogas production in Europe. The five European countries with
most biogas plants are: Germany, Austria [26], the Netherlands
[27], Denmark [28] and Italy. Also, the data shows an
important growth of electricity and heat production in almost
all the European countries listed.
The most relevant points that can be outlined after an
analysis of the biogas production in Europe can be summarized
as follows:
There is a great deal of experience in biogas plants
including its use and operation in many European
The number of biogas plants in Europe varies according
to the country.
The biogas plants have been stimulated by important
programmes of subsidies facilitated by the respective
governments. When these programmes were reduced, the
growth of the biogas sector was null. According
experiences in some countries, if the subsidies are
removed or mitigated, the biogas sector does not progress
There are different types of incentives for biogas
production according to the country [24].
Some strategies in some European countries harmonize
agricultural interest with energy goals providing excellent
Biogas production in some countries solves a double
problem: processing animal manure and production of
renewable energy.
The typical profile of biogas plant owners in Europe are
cooperatives including mainly farmers and public
organisations, but also, some shareholders such as
companies or private investors.



A biogas plant is a local and sustainability-based business.

Its profitability depends on national/European policies
(renewable and sustainable development criteria, energy
markets) and the local economy (co-generation, gas and
fertilizers production, waste processing). From a technological
point of view, and according to the amount of existing positive
experiences, there are no doubts regarding its feasibility.
Improvements in biogas plants are possible in many aspects
that are under different fields of investigation, but they are not
negative factors affecting the suitable operation of a biogas
Some risk factors to take into account are related to the
engagement of the local partners (i.e. farmers) for the longterm supply of raw materials. Other current external risk
factors existing in some countries or regions are related to
regulatory changes in the energy market and the market

volatility that can affect the electricity prices and the number
and price of the European TGC.
The main external threats are the increasing development of
more popular green energy sources such as wind farms and the
pressure of electricity tariffs on customers [27], [28]. With
respect to the increasing development of more competitive
sources of green energy, the subsequent possible drop of prices
in both TGC and electricity could be compensated by new
strategies of operation of the biogas plants. In this context, the
need for back-up and peak-demand units could be satisfied by
biogas plants since biogas is storable and can produce
electricity when needed. Also, biogas could be used in order to
compensate for the deficient production of green energy, for
instance, as a back-up for wind-prediction deviations or periods
of no wind. In any case, the external risks [16] can be mitigated
if adaptive policies are foreseen at the beginning of the project,
including heat usage, Organic Rankine-cycle, variable power
generation, waste processing, fertilizer and even gas
The main internal risk is the dependence on the local supply
of raw materials at a reasonable price. The best actions that are
possible to suggest in order to overcome this risk factor are to
assure long-term management of local land, to sign long-term
supply contracts, and make local agents very interested in the
long-term profitability of the plant by multiple business

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