The Italian biogas in agriculture sector annually reuses 20 million metric tons of livestock by-products and waste every year, converting them into renewable electricity that meets the energy needs of six million people. The sector as a whole, which numbers over 1,500 plants nationwide—including around 1,200 in the agricultural industry—generates 9.37 TWh of electricity every year. Production of biomethane instead amounts to 2.4 billion cubic meters a year, making Italy one of the leading producers of biogas in agriculture, and specifically the world’s fourth biggest producer after Germany, China and the United States. According to the CIB (the Italian Biogas Consortium), Italy could potentially produce up to 8.5 billion cubic meters of biomethane by 2030, currently equivalent to about 12–13% of annual natural gas consumption. Furthermore, the biogas-biomethane sector has the highest job intensity among renewables, with 6.7 workers per installed MW. To date, it has already created over 12,000 stable and specialized jobs.
In recent years, however, the CIB has taken a further step in creating a sustainable and high-quality production model, which has given to rise to the Biogasdoneright® movement. It is essentially a model that involves the use of by-products and double cropping, so that it does not compete with food and fodder production, which allows for a sustainable intensification of agriculture. To make this agricultural system potentially replicable, CIB has teamed up with Ecofys, an energy and climate consulting firm focusing on sustainable energy, to carry out the first study that demonstrates how farming productions can be increased by introducing sequential crops. The partnership will continue with the University of Wageningen (Netherlands), CRPA (the Reggio Emilia Research Center for Animal Production), and five international experts who will evaluate the replicability of this approach. The case study focused on northern Italy, where corn is cultivated as a summer crop for animal feed, and triticale as a winter cover crop that is destined to be used as digestate. The experts analyzed how much additional biomass is produced in this way and which impacts it has on soil nutrients, soil erosion, water availability, on-farm biodiversity and the carbon balance.
"Biogasdoneright is a model for the production of biogas in agriculture which delivers benefits that go beyond renewable energy production," says Piero Gattoni, President of the CIB. "The new energy market allows farms to increase their competitiveness and, above all, increase the area of land allocated to double cropping. By correctly applying the principles of Biogasdoneright, on the one hand the farm produces excellent food in a more and more sustainable way, and on the other hand, it effectively functions as a biorefinery that can produce renewable energy (electricity, natural gas) and biofertilizers, and integrate with green chemistry." The study has shown that it is an interesting economic model that could also be beneficial if extended to other regions. "The development of this model must go hand in hand with the use of precision farming technologies, minimal processing and strip tillage, combined with the efficient use of digestate. In this sense, farms adhering to the Italian Biogasdoneright model have become big open-air laboratories in which efficient agronomic solutions and innovative mechanized agriculture—two industries in which Italy excels—are applied."
The country’s strong agricultural tradition on the one hand, and the need for energy independence on the other hand, will contribute to making Italy a biogas leader. "The development of a series of joint biogas/biomethane renewable energy resources throughout the country would improve the security of the network and its ability to adapt to fluctuating consumption trends," concludes Mr. Gattoni. "The new decree on biomethane, which we hope will be approved soon, will enhance the appeal of methane vehicles in Italy, contributing to the reduction of transport sector emissions through the use of an advanced biofuel produced on a national scale. Moreover, thanks to these plants, we will be able to have stations dispensing liquefied and compressed biomethane and natural gas. Our industry’s role is central in various respects, particularly by reducing agriculture and transport emissions and increasing the sustainability of the national gas network."