Last November, UK retail giant John Lewis committed to powering 300 of its delivery trucks off of cow manure by 2021.
Biomethane — the gas produced via anaerobic digestion of organic matter, such as dead animal and plant material, manure, and sewage — is a promising alternative to oil, gas, and ethanol. As the climate crisis worsens, a growing number of researchers, governments, and companies around the world are taking notice.
As it comes to be taken more seriously as a viable source of clean fuel, biomethane’s possibilities are increasing exponentially.
While ambitious in its commitment, John Lewis is far from the first in the UK to hop on the biomethane bandwagon. In 2014, Bath Bus Company launched the first “Bio-Bus,” which shuttled passengers between Bath and Bristol using biomethane from human waste supplied by a Bristol sewage-treatment plant. The rest of the country was quick to catch on; biomethane use has increased 13-fold since 2017, and is poised to power up to 10 million UK homes by 2050. Locals are even getting creative with its uses: In 2018, an inventor from Malvern Hills created a poo-powered street lamp that collects and anaerobically digests dog sewage. The model has since been replicated elsewhere in the world.
The environmental benefits of biomethane are threefold: it relies on a renewable resource (organic waste), the energy source is completely carbon neutral, and its use cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions that would come from fossil fuels. Because the organic matter used to create biomethane would release carbon into the atmosphere on its own if left to decompose, converting it into gas and burning it adds nothing to the carbon cycle that wouldn’t already be there.
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Researchers such as the University of Waterloo’s David Simakov say biomethane offers huge potential as a source of energy. Simakov and his team are currently testing a computer model of a 2,000-head dairy farm that collects and converts cow manure into energy. It’s widely understood that the agriculture industry is one of the largest global emitters of greenhouse gases, due in part to the methane that cows release through manure. Automatically converting that sewage into a clean form of energy through a model such as Simakov’s would cut down on the emissions required to transport it from collection to digestion sites.
Just months prior to the start of Simakov’s test, the city of Waterloo ran a year-and-a-half-long pilot project, dubbed “Poop Power,” in which it collected dog waste via receptacles in public parks. The waste was transported to a local treatment facility, where it was anaerobically digested and used for heat and electricity. Analysis of the first five months of the trial found that the scheme generated enough electricity to power 13 homes and, if used as an alternative to fossil fuels, would remove 630 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The initiative also diverts waste from landfills and prevents dog poop — a toxic pollutant — from running off into the local watershed.
This year, tangible action in the world of manure-based power is coming to California. In 2018, Toyota announced its plans to build a power plant in the state that uses methane from dairy farms to run an estimated 2,350 homes and 1,500 vehicles. The plant is expected to be up and running this year. Toyota’s plans for the plant came just one year after then-California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order to connect a cluster of dairy farms to a facility that converts their waste into biogas, part of an effort to cut the state’s methane emissions from agriculture by 40 percent by 2030.
As of 2014, the United States was home to more than 2,000 biogas production sites, the Department of Agriculture estimates. As it comes to be taken more seriously as a viable source of clean fuel, biomethane’s possibilities are increasing exponentially. If its potential is fully realized, the 2014 report says, the green source of energy would be enough to “power more than 3 million American homes” and reduce national methane emissions by 54 metric tons — the equivalent of emissions from 11 million passenger vehicles.
Biomethane is a promising source of energy that stands to change the way we drive, power our homes, and live our lives. And it all starts with poo.