Andrew Ormerod is part of the UK team of the EU funded ISABEL community biogas project linked to Social Innovation, with partner organisations in Germany and Greece. http://isabel-project.eu
When we talk about community involvement in renewable energy or biogas project, we are talking about the level of participation by the community in a biogas scheme. This review is based on some general observations from undertaking research for the ISABEL community biogas project and it would be interesting to see if there are similar patterns elsewhere. This is not meant to be a heavy academic review but hopefully will stimulate some interesting thoughts from communities and those interested in community biogas research.
I come from an agricultural background and I understand that community participation in agricultural trials – particularly in the developing world runs on a continuous scale from no involvement where research is only carried out by the private sector or government research through to farmer lead research where the farmers take the initiative. Somewhere in the middle is government or private research where farmer’s opinions are sought. Further up the scale farmers undertaking research, which is supported by extension workers who liaise with researchers at the research stations.
Similarly may be community biogas can be seen as a continuum from privately run biogas to privately run biogas with a visitor centre and educational outreach.
Farmer community biogas
I have encountered one example in the UK in Cumbria where farmers have been brought together to provide feedstock for a biogas facility. The technology provider Greenacre biogas also provides advice on financing the project. The farmers involved are shareholders. After ten years when costs have been covered the ownership and management pass to those farmer shareholders who wish to take on the running of the facility.
Biogas by the people
Communities doing it for themselves
At the other end of the scale is community biogas run by the local community linked to other community activities. We have encountered some very interesting examples of this from Rokiah Yaman in London developed cross sector partnership LEAP (Local AD Community Engagement and Planning) with technology suppliers/engineers Methanogen, Guy Blanche at GBBD, the Community Composting Network, and later the University of Leeds, to develop micro anaerobic digestion for a range of contexts including urban, rural and off-grid applications. There are two microscale biogas projects in parks and other areas of common land in London that take in food waste and the biogas produced among other things is used for cooking in community kitchens, the digestate is used for growing vegetables in allotments and growing spaces which feed back into the café. One problem encountered is dealing with the quantity of digestate produced – and this is an interesting factor – considering quality and use of digestate – is there a big enough land bank to spread the digestate on near by?
Rokiah Yaman has also set up a temporary centre on the former Olympic Park in London to bring community together to try their hand out at making different renewable energy solutions – including biogas. She said at the first UK ISABEL Community biogas meeting that it was so successful in relation to being a hub where community with different skills could meet and work together that it had continued beyond its funding period.
Education linked to biogas
There has also been engagement with schools and colleges linked to science and engineering – involving pupils in understanding how biogas works and getting them involved in simple design of impellers to be used in small demonstrations of AD facilities. In Toronto Zoo in Canada there is an education program linked to biogas – obviously this already attracts a large audience – including school groups to see the animals there – so this is an additional attraction.
People trying it for themselves
On a very small scale Methanogen one of the companies in the UK who build biogas facilities have a small mobile AD and biogas unit, which they take to events and to training sessions. A few years ago in conjunction with Community Composting Network they took the equipment to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and to Newcastle and ran workshops. Although these were transient events there is an enduring legacy to encourage others to have a go as these workshops were filmed and put on to YouTube.
The equipment has been leant out to two communities to try and see how they liked the practicality of biogas production among a range of renewable energy solutions. In one case the equipment was used as a source of energy for cooking on an allotment in Dorset and in the other as a way of heating a large house for a community run organic horticultural enterprise. In the latter case it has lead the people who tested the equipment out to consider a more permanent biogas solution. One drawback with micro scale biogas equipment is that relatively they need more energy from the methane produced or from solar PV to heat up the digester and also they need to be efficiently insulated in our cool temperate climate in the UK. The biggest challenges with small units are in the winter due to cooler days and lower light levels.
There are various examples of renewable energy schemes that involve the community as shareholders. This may entail an operating company running the facility and profits going into a community chest for local schemes. Shareholders receive a dividend and there is an AGM. In some examples in very small communities in Scotland with wind turbines the benefits returned outstrip the needs of very small communities. Would this be the case with biogas – probably not to such a degree? In the case of community shares and biogas I have come across a couple of examples of attempting this model – I am sure there are more and it would be good to hear from them. In one example there wasn’t enough uptake in the time available to raise funds for an on farm biogas facility, despite information dissemination to local communities – so it was funded privately. In another case the facility has been built with a combination of public shareholders and private money and in addition to recycling local food and manure it also has commercial contracts for dealing with food waste.
Biogas for the people
In some instances perhaps the boundaries may be blurred as to whether biogas production in an institution is run for the people or by the people. In Northern Ireland there was a long running biogas facility in a monastery, which may straddle the boundaries here. However I understand it doesn’t operate any more as age and time has caught up with those movers and shakers who got it started.
However there is another example in Ireland, which is definitely community biogas ‘for the people’. This was established by Mark Dwan at Camphill Community at Ballytobin in the Irish Republic. Camphill communities provide a rural vocational educational facility for people with special needs. They are also present in other countries and different sites have had an ability to evolve to meet their local needs. The site in Ballytobin produces its own vegetables and livestock with the input of the people who come to the college and their assistance. Its building are designed by the people who work there and visiting volunteer helpers from many countries bring with them ideas that influence the site development. When local energy resilience was being considered volunteers from Germany sowed the seed of an idea about the possible development of a biogas facility on site. This lead through a planning and funding process to the development of a small biogas facility on the land adjoining the main Camphill site. The oak cleared from the site was used for building some of the iconic educational buildings on site. Most of the buildings on site are heated with hot water via a district heating system running under the paths. Some outlying buildings too far from the district heating system are heated by a biomass boiler. Ireland isn’t called the Emerald Isle for nothing! It rains a lot and has a moist environment – however the main hall of the building is so dry that it hosts a very fine concert piano – the property of the nearby city of Kilkenny!
Subsequently Combined Heat and Power equipment has been installed which provides some of the electricity for the community.
The biogas facility is run as a separate entity and the amount of energy in whatever form is measured for each of the buildings to allow auditing – I think partly to meet funding requirements. One of the factors, which have affected positively the viability of this plant, is the move away from consigning food waste to landfill in Ireland and payments for food destruction certificates have been beneficial.
Engaging with farmers
This facility also benefits from a few local dairy farmers who are very willing to bring along their slurry to be used as feedstock for biogas production. One of the reasons for their interest is that the digestate is available for spreading on the land during the growing season and is almost odourless, produces really good regrowth of grass without affecting the worm population. Cattle do not like going out on land spread with fresh slurry – but digestate doesn’t create the same problem allowing cattle to be moved back on the land more quickly after digestate has been applied. One of the key point Mark Dwan raised was that a biogas plant should have a large enough Land Bank to spread the digestate back on the land to make a project viable. In the UK the digestate has to be produced to a PAS110 standard to allow for digestate to be used on other farmers or producers land.
There may be other challenges to maximising the use of energy produced here – it isn’t near an electricity grid and one challenge is that unused heat is produced in the summer. Are there untapped opportunities here linked to other enterprises here?
This example may provide inspiration for other institutions where there is interest in providing heat and electricity for activities and enterprises on site.
Biogas for local communities
There is inspiration from visiting an Energy Villages in Germany and understanding a little more about co-housing and sustainable housing projects developed or planned in the UK – where sources of renewable energy are linked to local houses using district heating systems and private wires. Biogas could be an element of these developments – particularly if there is land enough and horticultural activities on hand to use the digestate. One of the challenges is for developers with vision and a clear interest in integrated sustainable development to come to the fore. There may be opportunities in the UK with a new wave of garden cities being planned.
One challenge here is how to deal with the dynamic of the community that isn’t there – yet. If there is a need for community engagement and cohesion – how is that mind set encouraged in a community in the process of being established?
Thinking about community involvement
Very simply as catalysts once interested communities have been identified – it is important to establish personal contact and understand the dynamics of the local communities – to find out from the local community who are the movers and shakers – who are the solid reliable members of the community and get things done, are there ways of encouraging continued interest through the different generations of the community? One experienced community energy expert suggested it was useful for representatives of the community to have project financial management as well as community engagement skills among their mix.
It is useful to have a good mix of creative and pragmatic input from members of the local community and to ensure that interest endures beyond the length of the current project. Also as well as exuberant opinion – it is useful to gauge the thoughts of quieter members of the community. Taking an agricultural example then it is useful to encourage the establishment of a local committee in the community you are working with. Examples in South America have a committee of four, the chairman, secretary, researcher and someone involved in community engagement – and events in the community one might add!
The challenge of keeping community interest going
With share owned community energy projects initial observations suggest that in some cases it may be more difficult to get the local community involved in the steering group – but I am also sure this is a problem with biogas and other forms of renewables when the initial movers and shakers move on – somehow new talent needs to be there in the wings. Someone once said to me that it is a good idea to have a mixture of ages in a committee linked to community activities to ensure continuity. Otherwise a whole group of people who started a project may step back from it at the same time. So there is a need to keep the level of interest going after any initial flurry of activity surrounding a new project. There is also a need to ensure that any community members involved in a project have resilience as planning a renewable energy project can take time. Perhaps mixing in other related projects that produce short term goals and successes is a good idea.
Can the wheel be re-invented?
One challenge of mature projects – is that young activists may come up with many ideas to help their community – over the years as these are whittled down by practicality, funding constraints, public opinion and red tape – creating a sense of mature wisdom – sometimes the next generation comes along uninhibited by the experience of life lived asking the same questions – without realising the difficulties encountered. These challenges may endure but in some cases circumstances can change finally making the concept feasible.