Germany looks to farm fumes in breakup with Russian gas

As Germany scrambles to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, the pungent fumes from the manure and other organic waste in Peter Kaim's farm could be part of the solution.

Germany looks to farm fumes in breakup with Russian gas
Cows sit in a field in front of giant tanks used in the biogas-producing process at a biogas unit in Ribbeck, Brandenburg. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

An hour’s drive west of Berlin, a strong smell emanates from three large cylinders in the middle of a muddy field on Kaim’s property shared with 100 dairy cows.

Every day, tonnes of organic waste — mainly manure, corn and grass — are poured into these receptacles.

In a process called “methanisation” fuelled by bacteria, the organic matter is transformed into gas.

This mini power plant supplies heating to about 20 homes in the village of Ribbeck, known for a pear tree whose praises the beloved 19th century writer Theodor Fontane once sang in a classic poem.

Everything “comes 100 percent from our farm”, Kaim told AFP.

The farmer prides himself on “independent” energy production against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and calls on the state to “adopt simpler authorisation procedures” to help biogas become a bigger part of the mix in Germany.

Like this operator, the entire biogas sector sees its chance in the current crisis as Berlin looks to quickly curb its dependence on Moscow for energy.

Before the Ukraine war, Germany imported 55 percent of its natural gas from Russia, half its coal and around 35 percent of its oil.

In a sign that their message is being heard, the German government announced this month its desire to “increase the production of ‘green’ gas”, as part of moves to boost resilience in the face of rising energy prices.

READ ALSO: Germany activates emergency gas plan to secure supply

2/3 of Nord Stream

For the moment, biogas accounts for only one percent of consumption in Europe’s top economy.

“We could immediately increase our production by 20 percent, and replace five percent of Russian gas, if some regulatory barriers were lifted tomorrow,” Horst Seide, president of the German federation of biogas producers, told AFP.

A concerted effort to boost the sector would allow it in the long term “to produce two-thirds of the capacity of Nord Stream 2”, the gas pipeline project which Berlin suspended after last month’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the industry group.

The history of biogas in Germany goes back decades. In the early 2000s, the country threw its weight behind the sector, making it a European leader.

Half of the continent’s methanisers are located in Germany.

Biogas Ribbeck

One of the giant tanks used in the biogas-producing process is seen at a biogas unit in Ribbeck, Brandenburg, on March 18th, 2022. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

But beginning in 2014, the German government reversed course, deciding to curb the production capacity of the industry with a complex system of targeted subsidies.

The main objection stemmed from the massive industrialisation of the sector, which posed serious environmental problems linked to the increased risks of water pollution and leakage of polluting gas.

A land grab for energy use to the detriment of food production has also been a cause of concern.

The agriculture ministry says 14 percent of Germany’s farmland is already used for the generation of energy.

As a result of disincentives, the opening of new biogas facilities has declined sharply, from 1,526 in 2013 to 94 in 2014, just after the regulatory change, to a mere 60 in 2021.

READ ALSO: Germany slashes Russian energy imports

‘Food insecurity’ 

The sector says it has learned from its mistakes and wants to be part of the solution when it comes to pulling away from Russian gas, calling for regulations to be loosened.

However, some experts are sceptical.

“In a future context of food insecurity due to the war in Ukraine, it is complicated to defend an increase in biogas production using the current model,” Michael Sterner, an energy researcher at the University of Regensburg, told AFP.

The expansion of production can be done in a “decentralised” way using small installations and “sustainable raw materials”, responds Ingo Baumstark, spokesman for the federation of gas producers.

The industry says it wants to abandon maize monocultures dedicated exclusively to energy production to focus on residue and waste from agricultural production.

But such a model, an improvement from an environmental point of view, would require a colossal logistical operation.

Currently 80 percent of the organic matter used for biogas in Germany comes from plants grown exclusively for this purpose, according to the German Environment Agency.

By Florian Cazeres

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Russia using energy ‘as weapon’, says Berlin

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck accused Russia on Thursday of using energy as "a weapon", after Moscow announced sanctions on Western energy firms and a key pipeline again saw lower gas deliveries to Europe.

Russia using energy 'as weapon', says Berlin

“It has to be said that the situation is coming to a head, in such a way that the use of energy as a weapon is now being realised in several areas,” Habeck told a press conference.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, on a visit to the German capital, said Moscow had shown itself to be an unreliable supplier.

Kuleba urged Europe to end its heavy dependence on Russian gas that was helping to finance Moscow’s war machine.

“This energy oxygen for Russia must be turned off and that is especially important for Europe,” Kuleba said at a joint press conference with Habeck.

“Europe must get rid of this complete dependence on Russian gas, since Russia has shown… that it is not a reliable partner and Europe cannot afford that.”

Russia on Thursday said it would stop sending natural gas via the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline as part of retaliation for Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

The move comes a day after Russia issued a government decree imposing sanctions on 31 EU, US and Singaporean energy firms.

Most of the companies belong to the Gazprom Germania group of subsidiaries of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The sanctions include a ban on transactions and the entry into Russian ports of vessels linked to the affected companies.

Meanwhile, operators on Thursday reported a drop in gas supplies from Russia via Ukraine for a second day, after Kyiv said it would suspend flows through a key eastern transit pipeline called Sokhranivka because the area wasno longer under Ukrainian control.

But Gazprom has denied there was a case for the Ukrainian side to declare “force majeure” and said it was impossible to reroute all the supplies through another Ukrainian pipeline.

‘Blackmail’ fears

Gazprom told the Interfax news agency that supplies transiting Ukraine on Thursday were at 50.6 million cubic metres in total, compared to 72 million cubic metres the day before.

Germany, which is hugely reliant on Russian energy, said it had been able to make up the shortfall through gas imports from Norway and the Netherlands.

The head of Germany’s Federal Network Agency, Klaus Mueller, also noted that Russia had been very “surgical” about its pick on which companies to sanction, selecting only storage and trading companies, and “not the operators”.

This “very well-planned, precise decree allows it to keep doing business with Germany, but not on old contract conditions”, rather under new conditions that other gas dealers would then have to conclude with Russia, said Mueller.

Europe’s biggest economy is racing to wean itself off Russian energy and has already almost completely phased out Russian coal.

But ditching Russian oil and gas will be more difficult.

With fears growing that Russia could abruptly turn off the energy taps, Habeck said Germany was focusing on building up gas reserves to prepare for winter.

“The gas storage facilities must be full by winter or else we will be in a situation where we can easily be blackmailed,” he warned.

READ ALSO: Russian gas transit halt in Ukraine hits key pipeline’s inflow in Germany