Anaerobic digestion in New Aquitaine: the right price for biogas

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In Saint-Antoine-de-Breuilh (France)

Brand new, clean and odorless: Breuilh’s CVE unit has the sophisticated appearance of a good student of biogas. Inaugurated last March in the small New Aquitaine village of Saint-Antoine-de-Breuilh, the young factory is already operating at full throttle.

Grape marc, scraps of paper, vegetable fats: she stirs in her belly the organic waste from the region’s agri-food industries, until she extracts the elixir of the gas market, biomethane. “Green gas, local energy”describes Paul Escale, engineer from Cape Verde Energy (CVE), responsible for developing the project over the past eight years, back on site for a routine visit.

Five to ten times less emitting than natural gas (depending on the latest Senate report), biomethane is one of the major investment vectors for the energy transition in France. At the national level, 80% of European funds for the 2014-2021 period were dedicated to the heating network and methanisation in the country.

Decarbonization issue, French energy sovereignty, but also positive externalities of organic waste generated by farms and industries… The sector is heavily subsidized for all these reasons in New Aquitaine.

Paul Escale, engineer in charge of the Breuilh CVE project, in front of the methanisation unit. | Aude Cazorla

The ERDF puzzle

To finance its total cost of ten million euros, the Breuilh CVE unit was able to benefit from numerous aids: up to 350,000 euros from the region, to which are added 950,000 euros from Ademe, and 722,000 euros from the ERDF. (European Regional Development Fund).

Financing facilitated by the support of the project’s minority shareholder, Engie Bioz: “Eight years ago, CVE was a very small structure, says Paul Escale. Joining forces with Engie made it possible to reassure certain funders, certainly to convince them that it was viable. Although this methanisation unit operates as an industrial unit in which Engie holds 49% of the capital, methanisation remains mainly agricultural in New Aquitaine.

But the high cost of the projects, the poor coordination of the subsidy organizations and the growing energy requirements complicate the issue of financing for the farmers.

Economist Pascal Grouiez dissects these difficulties in his study report Metha’Revenues: “The granting of bank credit depends on equity, which itself depends on the amount of regional grants allocated. The region therefore plays an important role in the selection of projects,” explains the expert.

The study published in 2020 shows that injection gas projects are also the most profitable, but remain reserved for large gas groups or large agricultural collectives of industrial cereal producers. “Injection requires a very high investment. Such amounts are difficult to bear by breeders whose financial situation is often fragile”says the report.

He concludes: “In the absence of public subsidies, it is likely that methanisation by injection will only become accessible to the most financially sound farmers.”

Over the period from 2014 to 2020, the allocation of 27 billion euros in European and regional subsidies has enabled the emergence of thirty-three projects in New Aquitaine: a quarter industrial, and three quarters agricultural.

Julien Jimenez, the deputy director responsible for the energy solution within the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, describes the selection process: “Overall, profitability is lower on the agricultural model than on the industrial one. For the project on the farm of a single farmer, we favor regional funds, because the European mechanism is a bit cumbersome for an agricultural project. But as soon as we are on a pooling or an energy project, we shoot with European funds.

For its new European financing plan for the period 2021-2027, Europe no longer wishes to finance large groups. A decision that upsets regional management: “The energy transition represents billions of euros of investment: it is capital intensive. It’s complicated to think that it’s the SMEs that will make the energy transition: they won’t have the means. We absolutely have to integrate these large companies into it.”Jimenez insists.

Reverse

The current energy context further complicates these issues. The end of the Covid period and the Russian gas embargo with the war in Ukraine created a peak in energy demand. For Jimenez, the search for profitability and competitiveness has been replaced by an imperative: “Do not let go of any type of methanation to reach 30% biogas in the energy mix”; 2030 goal.

Solid and liquid digestate is the residual substance after the methanization of organic waste. It is stored in the open air in the solid state (left) and in a tank in the liquid state (right). | Aude Cazorla

The technical challenge is not to be underestimated: “The gas network was built in France compared to its Russian origin. It is necessary to be able to reverse the network to inject gas from one distribution point to another. Allowing gas to flow in the opposite direction and exporting it is a real power issue.assures the specialist Pascal Grouiez.

The expert maintains that he finds it difficult to believe in the total substitution of natural gas by methanization on a national or European scale. He explains that the scenario of 30% renewable energy concentrated on biogas would require multiplying by 50 the number of methanization units compared to the current figure.

An impossible goal by 2030. And risky: “It is true that there is a whole methanization that will escape us. There should be more requirements for large groups than for farmers”concedes Jimenez.

Young methanizer looking for organic waste

Because Europe also fears the proliferation of energy crops, that is to say the exploitation of the soil solely intended for the production of methanogenic waste.

“It is also an issue of agricultural choice: do we want to occupy such a large part of the land by developing crops intended for methanization? Bad idea, as long as we haven’t found the solution to hold the 30% scenario without falling into the industrial agricultural model with huge units, ” sighs Pascale Grouiez.

A tractor transporting organic waste intended for methanization. | Aude Cazorla

In Saint-Antoine-de-Breuilh, the company uses part of its own biogas to meet its energy needs, redistributes its gas on the local network, is powered by waste recovered from 60 kilometers around.

This short circuit operation could be compromised by the multiplication of the number of methanizers planned on the neo-Aquitaine territory by 2030, and the emergence of new competition. You will then have to look elsewhere. And elsewhere, it is sometimes already too far.

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.


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