KAGOSHIMA – Some Japanese farmers have begun looking to biogas technology to allow them to turn their properties into power plants, giving them a way to transform animal and other waste into profits.
Biogas is a combustible substance consisting mainly of methane that can be produced through fermentation of organic materials such as livestock waste or food waste.
The push toward this type of green energy production has been promoted through the government’s feed-in-tariff, or FIT, system introduced in 2012 to encourage the use of renewables following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns.
Under the system, power companies are obliged to purchase electricity produced from renewable sources at a fixed price for a period of time.
But launching a fermentation-based biogas plant requires a sizable initial financial outlay compared with other types of renewable energy such as solar or wind power.
Yet, hopes for biogas power generation are high among Japan’s local governments as it potentially solves the twin challenges of disposal of livestock waste and providing energy to offset the rising costs of established power sources.
In Nagashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, home to about 10,000 residents, roughly 50,000 pigs are farmed, and overcoming the odor emanating from the animal waste has long been an issue.
At the initiative of the town government, an energy company was established in July funded by local businesses and livestock farmers.
The company plans to produce electricity from methane gas by fermenting more than 100,000 tons of animal waste collected every year in a sealed fermenter it seeks to build at a local piggery.
“The money that would be spent on energy will now flow into local communities,” said a senior Nagashima official. “We hope this will help spur on local economic activity.”
The company hopes to start selling biogas energy to Kyushu Electric Power Co. as early as in 2018 under the FIT system.
The municipal government is looking forward to a new revenue source and to jobs it expects will be created through the initiative.
As of the end of last November, a total of 179 biogas generation projects were recognized across Japan under the FIT system, of which 85 facilities have begun operations, according to the central government’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.
“Unlike Germany and some other countries, its history in Japan is short and the market still has the potential to grow,” an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said of biogas power generation.
Seven government departments plan to throw their financial support behind similar projects.
The energy agency estimates that the construction cost of biogas power generation facilities is equivalent to ¥3.92 million ($36,000) per 1 kW of electricity.
That figure compares with ¥244,000 for a solar power station with a production capacity of 10 kW or more and ¥282,000 for a wind power plant with production capacity of 20 kW or more.
Despite biogas being more expensive than other forms of renewable energy, the farmers choose it because it provides them with a way to dispose of waste while generating power.
One of the pioneering areas for biogas in Japan is Hokkaido, which is famous for cattle farming.
In 2015, Betsukai in eastern Hokkaido launched one of the country’s largest biogas power generation plants, in conjunction with Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co.
The municipality ferments 280 tons of cattle waste per day collected from about 100 livestock farms. Its annual revenue from electricity production has reached ¥400 million.
Tokamachi in Niigata Prefecture, famous for mushroom production, generates biogas power from waste mushroom beds and Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture is set to sell biogas-produced energy from April 2019.
In some municipalities, liquid biogas residues left after the fermentation process are also utilized as fertilizer.
Oki in Fukuoka Prefecture has fermented household food waste for approximately a decade and provides about 6,000 tons annually of liquid residue to local farmers for use as fertilizer.