Climatic conditions for biogas dissemination
Biogas technology is feasible in principle under almost all climatic conditions. As a rule, however, it can be stated that costs increase for biogas production with sinking temperatures. Either a heating system has to be installed, or a larger digester has to be built to increase the retention time. Unheated and un-insulated plants do not work satisfactory when the mean temperature is below 15 °C. Heating systems and insulation can provide optimal digestion temperatures even in cold climates and during winter, but the investment costs and the gas consumption for heating may render the biogas system not viable economically.
| Global 15oC isotherms for January and July, indicating the biogas-conducive temperature zone
Not only the mean temperature is important, also temperature changes affect the performance of a biogas plant adversely. This refers to day/night changes and seasonal variations. For household plants in rural areas, the planner should ensure that the gas production is sufficient even during the most unfavorable season of the year. Within limits, low temperatures can be compensated with a longer retention time, i.e. a larger digester. Changes of temperature during the course of the day are rarely a problem as most simple biogas digesters are built underground.
The amount of seasonal and annual rainfall has mainly an indirect impact on anaerobic fermentation:
- Low rainfall or seasonal water scarcity may lead to insufficient mixture of the substrate with water. The negative flow characteristics of substrate can hamper digestion.
- Low precipitation generally leads to less intensive systems of animal husbandry. Less dung is available in central locations.
- High precipitation can lead to high groundwater levels, causing problems in construction and operation of biogas plants.
Suitability of climatic zones
Tropical Rain Forest: annual rainfall above 1.500 mm, mean temperatures between 24 and 28°C with little seasonal variation. Climatically very suitable for biogas production. Often animal husbandry is hampered by diseases like trypanosomiasis, leading to the virtual absence of substrate.
Tropical Highlands: rainfall between 1.000 and 2.000 mm, mean temperatures between 18 and 25°C (according to elevation). Climatically suitable, often agricultural systems highly suitable for biogas production (mixed farming, zero-grazing).
Wet Savanna: rainfall between 800 and 1.500 mm, moderate seasonal changes in temperature. Mixed farming with night stables and day grazing favor biogas dissemination.
Dry Savanna: Seasonal water scarcity, seasonal changes in temperatures. Pastoral systems of animal husbandry, therefore little availability of dung. Use of biogas possible near permanent water sources or on irrigated, integrated farms.
Thornbush Steppe and Desert: Permanent scarcity of water. Considerable seasonal variations in temperature. Extremely mobile forms of animal keeping (nomadism). Unsuitable for biogas dissemination.
Firewood consumption and soil erosion
A unique feature of biogas technology is that it simultaneously reduces the need for firewood and improves soil fertilization, thus substantially reducing the threat of soil erosion. Firewood consumption in rural households is one of the major factors contributing to deforestation in developing countries. Most firewood is not acquired by actually cutting down trees, but rather by cutting off individual branches, so that the tree need not necessarily suffers permanent damage. Nonetheless, large amounts of firewood are also obtained by way of illegal felling.
In years past, the consumption of firewood has steadily increased and will continue to do so as the population expands - unless adequate alternative sources of energy are developed. In many developing countries such as India, the gathering of firewood is, strictly speaking, a form of wasteful exploitation. Rapid deforestation due to increasing wood consumption contributes heavily to the acceleration of soil erosion. This goes hand in hand with overgrazing which can cause irreparable damage to soils. In the future, investments aimed at soil preservation must be afforded a much higher priority than in the past. It will be particularly necessary to enforce extensive reforestation.
Soil protection and reforestation
The widespread production and utilization of biogas is expected to make a substantial contribution to soil protection and amelioration. First, biogas could increasingly replace firewood as a source of energy. Second, biogas systems yield more and better fertilizer. As a result, more fodder becomes available for domestic animals. This, in turn, can lessen the danger of soil erosion attributable to overgrazing. According to the ICAR paper (report issued by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi), a single biogas system with a volume of 100 cft (2,8 m3) can save as much as 0.3 acres (0,12 ha) woodland each year.
Taking India as an example, and assuming a biogas production rate of 0.36 m3/day per livestock unit, some 300 million head of cattle would be required to produce enough biogas to cover the present consumption of firewood. This figure is somewhat in excess of the present cattle stock. If, however, only the amount of firewood normally obtained by way of deforestation (25.2 million trees per year) were to be replaced by biogas, the dung requirement could be satisfied by 55 million cattle. Firewood consumption could be reduced to such an extent that - at least under the prevailing conditions - a gradual regeneration of India's forests would be possible.
According to empirical data gathered in India, the consumption of firewood in rural households equipped with a biogas system is much lower than before, but has not been fully eradicated. This is chiefly attributable to a number of technical and operational short-comings. At present,
- many biogas systems are too small to handle the available supply of substrate;
- many biogas units are operated inefficiently;
- many of the existing biogas systems are not used due to minor mistakes;
- biogas users tend to increase energy consumption to the point of wastage, then requiring additional energy in the form of firewood.
A more serious problem, however, is the fact that a household biogas system program can only reach the small percentage of farmers who have the investment capital required. The majority of rural households will continue to use firewood, dried cow dung and harvest residues as fuel.
Reduction of the greenhouse effect
Last but not least, biogas technology takes part in the global struggle against the greenhouse effect. It reduces the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels in two ways. First, biogas is a direct substitute for gas or coal for cooking, heating, electricity generation and lighting. Additionally, the reduction in the consumption of artificial fertilizer avoids carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise come from the fertilizer producing industries. By helping to counter deforestation and degradation caused by overusing ecosystems as sources of firewood and by melioration of soil conditions biogas technology reduces CO2 releases from these processes and sustains the capability of forests and woodlands to act as a carbon sink.
Methane, the main component of biogas is itself a greenhouse gas with a much higher "greenhouse potential" than CO2. Converting methane to carbon dioxide through combustion is another contribution of biogas technology to the mitigation of global warming. However, this holds true only for the case, that the material used for biogas generation would otherwise undergo anaerobic decomposition releasing methane to the atmosphere. Methane leaking from biogas plants without being burned contributes to the greenhouse effect! Of course, burning biogas also releases CO2. But this, similar to the sustainable use of firewood, does only return carbon dioxide which has been assimilated from the atmosphere by growing plants maybe one year before. There is no net intake of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from biogas burning as it is the case when burning fossil fuels.