Those Bloom Energy fuel cells that eBay said it will use to power its new data center in Utah? They’ll run on natural gas. Likewise most Bloom Boxes going in these days.
But they can run on biogas – and eBay, like many of the companies turning to fuel cells these days, is paying a premium for its natural gas in order to enable biogas production.
This is part of the story of the rise in demand for biogas, a trend highlighted by Pike Research in a new report.
The market analysts said biogas, while still “a relatively minor player within the overall bioenergy sector,” reached $17.3 billion in revenue in 2011 and is on course to nearly double that figure by 2022.
“Increasing demand among farmers, municipalities, and industrial processors for waste treatment technologies, on the one hand,” senior analyst Mackinnon Lawrence said, “and widening opportunities for renewable natural gas in transportation and cogeneration applications on the other, signal steady growth for the biogas industry over the next decade.”
Biogas is made when microorganisms break down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment – thus the term anaerobic digestion. The product typically has lower methane content than natural gas, but can be used in some energy systems as is, or can be processed — removing hydrogen sulfide, chlorine and sulfur, for instance — to make it interchangeable with natural gas.
With natural gas cheap these days, biogas can be a challenging option. Systems are expensive to implement, and unless they can be tied to the natural gas grid, it can be difficult to take advantage of the fuel generated.
Still, we’ve seen biogas taking shape in a wide range of applications.
In New York state, biogas production recently began at the Synergy Dairy, a 2,000-head dairy farm in Covington, Wyoming County. It’s the largest on-farm co-digestion biogas project in the state, one of 17 New York biogas plants together turning waste from 20,000 cows into a generating capacity of 3 MW.
In April, we saw the first commercial application of a UC Davis-developed system for converting food waste (along with plant residues, yard waste and paper products) into biogas. Unveiled by Clean World Partners, a Sacramento-based startup that licensed the technology, the biodigester was installed at American River Packaging, where it immediately set about converting tons of food waste and unrecyclable corrugated material into bio-derived natural gas, creating 1,300 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy each day.