February 27, 2023 at 3:24 p.m.
Finding solutions to green demands on dairy
Nature Energy, a biogas company founded in Denmark, and recently acquired by Shell Global, is hoping to bring its European model of co-digestion to farming communities in North America, beginning with towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“Our first two plants will be in Benson and Wilson (Minnesota),” said Alexis Glick, CEO of Nature Energy North America. “We are working around the clock with the hope that we can put shovels in the ground as early as this year and have gas in the pipeline and connection to the grid by 2025.”
Glick said Nature Energy has the permits in place and is working with farmers and municipalities in those areas.
“There are many more (sites and plans) behind the scenes that we are working on building as well,” Glick said. “The reception from the farmers has been extraordinary; I hope we can get out and meet with many more.”
Although Shell Global expects to complete the transaction for acquiring Nature Energy by the end of March, Nature Energy will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shell Global under its existing name.
“The Nature Energy team and our team members will deliver on our aggressive pipeline growth plans in Europe and North America,” Glick said.
Glick said Nature Energy has over 420 people in its organization, mostly in Europe and North America. Although the company was founded in Denmark 40 years ago as a traditional gas utility, 10 years ago it transitioned to become a biogas company. Today, Nature Energy has 12 plants in Denmark, which supply about 30% of the green gas that powers the electric grid there. Nature Energy is the largest biomethane producer in the world, according to Glick.
The company has three main goals in North America.
“One, how do we protect farmers’ freedom to operate, knowing that methane is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters,” Glick said. “Secondly, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, how do we begin to adopt, grow and facilitate the growth of biogas facilities in North America while recognizing that we (the U.S.) are the largest individual producer of waste in the world.”
Glick said this includes needing solutions for waste management, food insecurity and energy insecurity.
“The third goal is to address the increased pressure – not just on government but also on businesses – to report their emissions,” Glick said. “As a result of that, more and more companies are cracking down and making net-zero commitments. For farmers, if you’re supplying to (any number of businesses), you are being asked what your sustainability practices are, and this is something that is very front and center on the minds of farmers and is key to their freedom to operate every single day and sell their products.”
Nature Energy’s plan is to offer solutions through its co-digestion system.
“The vast majority of digesters in the U.S. are on-farm manure digesters that are taking the dairy manure and producing gas,” Glick said. “Many of those farmers are using that to power their operations and, in some cases, converting that gas to support the electricity grid in their local community.”
Glick said some farms are converting the gas into compressed natural gas that can be used for trucking milk to a local processor.
“In most cases, the manure is used in an on-farm digestion model where a limited amount of power is being created, but it’s creating a sustainable dairy, which is outstanding,” Glick said. “It has been fantastic to see those who have adopted on-farm digestors be successful with them.”
An issue, however, is cost. Most on-farm digestors are only economically accessible to large operations, Glick said.
“Many dairy farmers do not have the capital to invest in what they need to meet net-zero goals,” Glick said. “Nature Energy can get them there because we are bringing the capital to the table to help them be a part of this energy transition.”
Glick said Nature Energy’s system is different in that it uses co-digestion plants to create green local economies – with farmers being important members.
“We are bringing together manure and other forms of organic waste, and we are combining the two to create a much higher density gas,” Glick said. “The amount of power we are producing in a Nature Energy biogas is 10 to 20 times (more than) the largest biogas facilities that exist in North America.”
In the co-digestion model, feedstocks are added to manure, which can be of a wide variety such as glycerin, sugar, beets, residues from cover crops and many others. Manure and feedstocks are trucked in separately to the facility. They each go into separate cargo bays with doors that immediately close after entry. A pipe connects to tanker trucks and extracts what is in those tankers, whether manure or feedstocks. Then, it takes it into the biogas facility.
As the manure and feedstocks are extracted, a few other tasks are completed simultaneously, which only take a few minutes. The first is washing down the trucks so there is no detection of odor. Also, in the case of the manure, it is being measured for its makeup such as amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Part of what is being produced when combining the manure and feedstock is a higher quality gas and a higher quality of digestate, or fertilizer.
“When we use a co-digestion process, where we are putting lots of things together, we can help predict and control the outcome based on the types of things that go inside that co-digestion model,” Glick said.
The process extracts methane and puts the green gas into an existing pipeline with a local gas utility, using it to help supply power to local commercial customers. The methane gas can be compressed, liquified or used in various forms.
Through the process, Nature Energy also sequesters the carbon dioxide and cleans it.
“We’re creating what we call ‘Clean Green CO2,’” Glick said. “That is important because our goal is to reduce greenhouse gases in the environment, but we can also use that cleaned carbon for a number of purposes.”
Those purposes can include carbonation for beverages, refrigerants and other products.
“We are extracting the methane and the carbon, and when we combine it with excess hydrogen or excess wind power, we can produce even more gas,” Glick said. “What we are constantly looking at is the amount of output we can create in terms of how much energy can be produced, how that energy can be used and – very important for the farmer – the quality of the digestate that we are bringing back to the farmer.”
That digestate can be specifically controlled to help the farmer who supplied the manure in the first place. For example, digestates can be made to help farmers with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium concerns.
“We are trying to give farmers back a more nutrient-rich digestate that will improve yields and quality to help, in some cases, displace the use of artificial fertilizers,” Glick said.
Nature Energy designs, builds and operates its own facilities. In Denmark there are 12 Nature Energy plants running all day, every day within 25-30 miles of one another, so they can share biomasses to increase efficiency while supporting local jobs, infrastructure, trucking and distribution.
“How do we help the farmer remove from their land the thing that they are being punished the most for, which is the manure that sits out on the land or is in a lagoon or being stockpiled?” Glick said. “How do we remove it so that we are taking away those greenhouse gases and provide back through our co-digestion process basically de-gassed manure that has higher nutrient density, the nutrients that the soil needs to produce better cover crops nearby or provide a really healthy bedding mechanism.”
To address what it takes to join in on Nature Energy’s process, the company partners with and assists farmers in changes they make, such as acquiring sand separators or building reception pits with agitators.
“We also have the ability to help farmers switch to straw pellets or digested manure solids to bed the cows,” Glick said. “We are removing the costs of taking away the manure as well.”
EPA regulations, federal and state guidelines, rising inflation and consumer demands for green processes are some of the many farming pressures Nature Energy is aiming to address.
“The headwinds (for farmers) are enormous,” Glick said. “My fear is that we are not moving fast enough. The regulatory scrutiny is growing daily.”
Glick said she sees Nature Energy’s solution positively affecting all involved in the green communities it creates.
“If we do this right, we will protect our farmers, we will protect our food supply, we will protect our energy independence, and we will reduce the amount of fossil fuel use,” Glick said. “At the same time, we will engage a generation of kids who care deeply about protecting the planet and enable them to help lead the green transition with us.”
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