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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Big Biogas Business in the Veneto countryside

A maize (corn) field in Treviso, 20th September 2019. (Davide Bonaldo, Alamy) 

The Big Biogas Business in the Veneto countryside 
Elia Cavarzan, journalist - translated from the Italian by Paul Tout

(from Internazionale magazine) 
16th July 2020 

This reportage was possible thanks to a prize awarded during the Impact Journalism workshop, organized by the NGOs Terra! All in the same dish and the Non profit network. They supervised Fabio Ciconte and Stefano Liberti.

As you wander through the countryside around Padua you immediately notice something. The large green cylinders with white domes. There are lots of them and they’re everywhere, surrounded by vast fields of maize (corn) and wheat. These are the most visible signs of the industrial plants that produce biogas on the farms, and that is gas obtained through the decomposition of a range of organic substances. This decomposition process takes place inside the cylinders that dot the countryside around the provincial capital of the Veneto. In the absence of oxygen and at controlled temperatures, the vast number of bacteria break down the substances and release biogas and digestate, a natural liquid fertiliser. This biogas is then transformed into electricity using generator, while the digestate is used as fertiliser on the surrounding fields. Built a decade ago to dispose of farm waste and generously subsidized using public funds, many of these plants have brought about a real agricultural upheaval in various areas of northern Italy

“I’m selling chopped maize to two one-megawatt plants” explains one supplier who prefers to remain anonymous. Fifty years old and with an unconditional love for his land, explains that “we are talking about five hundred tons of corn a day”. To do this, the plants require 53 hectares (131 acres) of land each month. To get an idea, this is an area equivalent to 74 football fields. “It is an impressive business, devouring agricultural land and disposing of very little animal manure from farms  because the ‘diets’ of biogas plants are now all based on plant products.” This refers to the original idea behind the state funding allocated in 2008 which was to create a virtuous agricultural circuit capable of disposing of the sewage from intensive farms in the biogas plants. This did not happen. 

Now as then, the biogas entrepreneurs work mainly with subcontractors. “They tell us which fields to work on and we provide them with the product their company needs,” explains the supplier. The owners of the fields are not usually farmers, but entrepreneurs who own large tracts of land. They sell maize to power the plants because it suits them much more, so much so that even the smallest farmers, when the year is uncertain, are tempted to turn to biogas entrepreneurs. This role play works and pays off. This is explained by a young farmer from Treviso, also preferring to remain anonymous: “For about five years I have only been working to bring corn, harvested a few months before ripening, to nearby biogas plants. My 25 hectares of land are entirely dedicated to this. And to tell you the truth, everything now revolves around these biodigestors, and only in this way do we farmers survive”. 

Few answers 
In the Region Veneto (which includes Venice) there are 256 biogas plants with a total power of 178.815 megawatts of electricity (the abbreviation is Mwe, the unit of measurement for the amount of energy supplied). The Region Lombardy (capital, Milan) led the way in 2009. Today there are 554 plants, which produce 381.203 MWe. Emilia-Romagna (Bologna) follows with 209 plants and Piemonte (Turin) with 189. In these regions a new agro-industrial team has been created which, over the years and with ups and downs, has been able to interweave three parallel universes of intensive animal husbandry, agriculture, and renewable energy. 

The numbers are remarkable, although difficult to obtain. In Veneto, according to the Regional Agency, Veneto Agricoltura, 61.6 percent of the plants are entirely fed with maize, wheat, sorghum and triticale (a hybrid cereal), and only 37 percent with manure. 

In the rest of the country it is difficult to quantify which substances the biodigestors are consuming on a daily basis and which are the most important ones and just how much farmed slurry they actually dispose of? The response from the communication office of the Italian Biogas Consortium (the Cib) - the first voluntary association bringing together biogas producing farms in Italy - was a lapidary: “We are carrying out analyses and processing data in this period. So these numbers are not currently available.” 

A step back 
To join up the dots that render the energy chain produced with biogas a unique one, you need to take a step back. In 2008, the then government led by Silvio Berlusconi tried to solve the problem of the disposal of livestock slurry by granting huge incentives to agricultural biogas plants, paying 28 cents per kilowatt hour, that is, four times the commercial value of the electricity 

A biogas plant that produces one-megawatt hour collects 280 euros per hour, almost seven thousand euros in just 24 hours of fermentation. In 2008, building a biogas plant cost around 1.6 million euros. With these incentives, you could repay your investment in just two years. 

The 2008 decree, voted and introduced in Italy seven days before Christmas, provided for 28 cents per kilowatt-hour “for 15 years”. In 2013, this unprecedented pay-out was curbed, reducing incentives by up to 50 percent, based on the type of plant and its energy production capacity. 

Some farmers remember that back in 2008 people were seen running around the countryside in Porsches. 

The aim of the decree was to help farmers who dispose of manure produced during animal rearing. But entrepreneurs were to use the biogas plants as machines to make money and take a breather during the economic crisis that began in 2008. Everyone working on it immediately realised that maize harvested before ripening or grains were better feedstock for the plants than manure because starch ferments faster. And the Regions and public administrations adapted, approving these types of projects. As one supplier, who (again) prefers to remain anonymous says, “sometimes I have seen flour thrown directly into the digesters to speed up the fermentation”. In many plants in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, it was mostly maize, wheat, and sorghum that ended up being fermented. 

Some farmers remember that at the time people could be seen driving around the countryside of the Po Valley in Porsches, getting out into the middle of nowhere with a briefcase in hand, looking around and saying: “Here’s where you have to build the plant”. 

After the bubble 
After the great bubble of 2009-2012, efforts were made to curb the speculation and put the small agricultural concerns that actually used - and still use - small biogas plants to create virtuous circuits of self-sufficient and circular agro-industry back on their feet. 

If we take a look at the 2019 budget law, the incentives are mainly directed to those producing only 300 kilowatt-hours and that can demonstrate a feedstock for the plant composed of 80% of livestock slurry and the remaining 20% from crops produced during the second harvest. Support is higher still if the energy is reused for business processes and not sold on. In this way they have tried to help those farming with a maximum of one hundred animals and who thus decide to build their own small digesters for the disposal of the animal waster. 

In spite of this, most of the plants produce around 999 kilowatt-hours. In Veneto more than 75% do so. This is because the state subsidies outlined in the 2008 decree strongly incentivized the plants that were able to produce 1-megawatt hour of energy. 

A challenge 
Yet biogas remains a valid and current challenge. David Bolzonella, Professor of Chemical Plants at the University of Verona and a researcher in the field of anaerobic biogas digestion, is convinced of this and speaks of “an extremely relevant challenge”. According to his studies, many of which have been conducted together with various agencies of the European Union, “the potential that biogas has shown has been phenomenal in helping the Po Valley agricultural sector and renewable sources, as well as the whole bioeconomy sector in general”. 

Bolzonella explained that “after the big bubble two paths have become apparent. One of these is speculative and the other innovative, the latter having reached very high levels of excellence Italy. I am thinking of a whole series of local agricultural concerns that have decided to form consortia to create experiences that could become examples to follow in order to make the agricultural world more sustainable”. 

One example is the cooperative La Torre in the province of Verona, which has thirteen animal rearering businesses, seven thousand head of cattle and a turnover of around €11 million a year ($USD 13 million, £GBP 10 million). With its two biogas plants of one megawatt-hour it manages to dispose of almost all the manure it produces. What remains, together with the wastewater that comes out of the plants, is used across its thousand hectares of land. 

But there are also many other breeders who, using their biogas plants, manage to completely dispose of the manure produced in their animal sheds, producing electricity for their activities and saving thousands of euros in fertiliser bills annually every year. All this takes place without them taking anything away from agricultural production for animal feeds and even from products intended for human consumption. 


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