“It is particularly ironic that the battle to save the world's remaining healthy ecosystems will be won or lost not in tropical forests or coral reefs that are threatened but on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet.”- Worldwatch Institute. 2007

Friday, 17 September 2010

September 15th Schleswig-Holstein Biogas

Travel today by bike 12km
Today by car 50km

I’m chucked out of the communal area last night at ten when they lock up and it’s late enough – I sleep deeply again and eat a hefty breakfast with Kirsten from the bed next door who has cycled from Hamburg and tells me she got up to go to the toilet at 2am and a couple were in there ‘having a lot of fun’.
I spend some time transcribing yesterday’s interview and then decide I had better get going - after a few hundred yards I remember they drive on the right. I follow a different cycle sign to yesterday hoping it will take me along the coast. It appears to dead end at the marina but then I see a cycle track right along edge of the sea. I stop to take photos again and it leads me back to the same point I entered the forest yesterday. As I get to Artefact the sun is shining so I quickly take more snaps before it starts again. Werner has been let down by someone and so is teaching kids how they live in Africa and another group about making solar panels. He’s clearly in youth education mode with a bright shirt and a cap with a solar powered fan in the peak and reminds me briefly of Jo Gwilym, the only man who can make electrics interesting and a natural teacher. I join in with a school group watching a film on energy in the region. I talk to a couple of the girls afterwards – this is their second visit. I ask what they think about it and they say ‘it’s ok’.
When they’ve gone I watch the film again in English. It’s commissioned by the ministry for agricultural affairs and paid for by a number of renewable energy developers and suppliers (including Vestas and RWPower) about sun, wind and biomass energy in the Schleswig-Holstein region and is very upbeat with lots of stirring music and big zooming camera shots swooping over wind farms and through fields of maize.
At last Werner is free and rounds up Paloma, their intern who is studying biomass and comes along as an extra interpreter and for her own interest. She’s German American and so a big help. I fold up the newbike, put it in the car boot and we set off at breakneck speed to our first visit – a biogas plant in Linau.

Nico is one of the many regional farmers who turned to wind when milk and wheat farming couldn’t provide a living two decades ago. He still sees himself as principally a wind farmer but since six years ago has had a share in the plant he shows us round. A vast yard with walls maybe 4 metres high holds up to 20,000 tonnes of maize, dried and shredded. Twice a day Nico shovels ten tipper loads into the feed hopper for the first fermentation vessel. This takes around an hour a day but with additional maintenance and administration he reckons four hours a day to run the plant. The maize is fed by automatic screw feed into the first vessel, then into a secondary vessel and then into a holding tank. The resultant sludge is pumped out and taken away by tanker, back to the maize farmers. The methane so produced is burnt in three 370kW engines to produce annually 1.1MWh of electricity and 1.2MWh of heat.
The electricity is fed into the grid and receives the feed in tariff. They could claim this even if they threw away the heat, which many people do – Nico rolls his eyes at this and complains of ‘Verructer Politiker’ which I translate as crazy politicians. The propagation of biogas plants in the region has been so rapid that legislation has not been able to keep up, there is no central strategy for them and now there are too many he says, with some driving in maize from Denmark (where they don’t have a biogas feed in tariff).
But he admits that finding a use for the heat is always the problem. Their heat is fed into a district heating main which feeds the village. Initially it was just six households but 30 or 40 joined in the second year and now it is up to 90. The first six get the heat at a flat rate for the year, which works out about 50% of the cost of oil heating and the others are metered but still make a saving over the cost of oil. Government subsidies are available towards the cost of connection. Some, like Nico have a back up oil heater still but many do not. After touring the plant we go and sit in one of his buildings and it’s toasty warm – Paloma says afterwards she nearly fell asleep. I ask about the efficiency of a heat network when the buildings are so far apart. Nico says it’s very efficient, then he points at the lawn and says that you can see where the heat main is in winter because the snow melts above it. But apart form that, he insists, it’s very efficient. We have so much hot water, he tells me – we wash our horses in hot water!
Two villagers recently have built new houses to a very high spec and they hardly need heating but they have still attached to the heat main. Beside the portacabins that house the engines are dry coolers to dissipate the heat when the heat main can’t take it.
We thank him for his time and Werner presents him with a small model car with a PV cell on the roof that powers it. ‘I can only guarantee it for a couple of million years’ he tells him, ‘and then the sun might go out’.

We drive a little slower to the second appointment with Dirk and Bernd Nissen, brothers who run a farm biogas plant, a slightly smaller operation of 715kW split between three engines with around 1000kW of heat as a by-product. The farm also has four 600kW turbines and two 1.5MW turbines and a 125kW PV array which covers all of the cow shed. We sit in the control room and Dirk explains in English that he built the plant himself and maintains it, because he’s a mechanical engineer – I am riven with envy at this and feel like I did when Hugh Piggott showed us how to make a wind turbine out of wood. That’s proper engineering I think – being able to make electricity out of wood, or in this case shit. The plant runs on a combination of cow manure, maize and grass. This gives them some resilience in the case of a year with a poor harvest. They also have a problem with heat dissipation – only three farms are close enough to benefit from the thermal output and so they have come up with a plan to run a gas line down to the nearest town and move one of the engines to run there so the heat can be used. They could link into the gas main that runs nearby and they say that E-on who owns it is prepared to let them do this. But they don’t want E-on selling their gas anonymously – they would rather prove that their way of doing things is a viable alternative to the monopolies. Anti E-on feeling is high in the region, especially since the CCS plan – signs on the roadside and in shops, black on yellow with a gas masked face, pronounce against the plans. There is a big demonstration on Saturday in Berlin. Paloma is meeting her mother there. Werner wants to go but as he appears to be almost singlehandedly running Artefact he may be too busy.

Our third stop is in Shaffland, a town of 2,200 inhabitants where we meet Carstensen at the Agraberatung Nord offices. They are not a co-operative although they’re supported by farmers, and not quite a company. They provide consultancy on matters agricultural and in the past five years this has included a rapidly growing number of biogas installations. He tells us that the primary hurdle is getting financial backing – the banks are much more cautious now and want to see clear evidence that a secure and long term feedstock supply is in place Below 1MW (total electric and thermal combined) plants do not need planning permission as it’s classed as a ‘privilaged’ construction and bound only by a few guidelines such as minimum distance from habitation (they don’t stink but they have a definite farm-yardy smell). Even above 1MW planning is not really a big issue unless there is a limiting factor such as road size. This is one area where legislation has recently caught up as more and heavier traffic to feed the plants and remove the sludge led to high road repair bills. But there is no limitation due to a regional strategy as there is in the case of wind (the 1.5% of allowed land cover has been reached). Carstensen doesn’t see that this is a problem as the availability of feedstock is already starting to act as a brake (15,000 hectares of maize he reckons is imported from Denmark). He does think that the legislation isn’t clever enough in the differentiation between size of plant. There are three bands (up to 150kW, 150-500kW and 500kW-5MW) with the smallest attracting a much higher tariff. One developer is in court right now for installing ten small plants to claim the lower tariff. The other potential problem is one of centralization of farms. Over the last decade the number of farmers has shrunk to only 10% with farms merging and being bought out. It seems they may be against monopolies in general, and E-on in particular but this doesn’t stop them buying their neighbours.

Werner and Carstensen are getting deeper into conversation but my head is hurting from trying to take it all in and understand the German even though it’s being translated (although at increasingly lengthy intervals) and poor Paloma looks like she might start eating her own arm so we thank Carstensen, Werner presents him with a solar mini-car and Paloma and I leg it over the road in the rain to the bakery just before it closes to get a sandwich and some cake. I’m dropped back at the youth hostel and say goodbye to Werner (Paloma I will meet again tomorrow). He’s been a great help and the meetings he’s organized really constructive. There’s a worry when you’ve only met someone by email or picked somewhere because the website looked good but on this occasion it’s certainly worked.

Back in the hostel yesterday’s roommates have all gone and been replaced by Helen from Oxford. I warn her about the late night toilet activities and go in the rain to the supermarket for food. I really want something hot but I can’t see anywhere close by and the prospect of staying dry is slightly more appealing. I do that thing I do where I buy something because it looks interesting – a jar of potted meat lumps in jelly and some rum and raisin rittersport chocolate (fond memories of a school skiing trip). The potted meat lumps are surprisingly nice, thereby re-inforcing my belief that this is a good way to approach food experimentation and means I’m about 2% more likely to try eating the snails in the back garden (I have it on good authority that ALL snails are edible). After eating and writing up the day I can feel my face getting red with tiredness and so despite it being not even ten yet I’m off to bed. I have ‘Compass Bearings for a Course Change’ to read, based on Germany but could just as easily be any country in the developed world. Page eleven tells me the large scale production of biofuels leads to the destruction of ecosystems and has negative impacts on food supply. Cheerful stuff.


  1. 'We thank him for his time and Werner presents him with a small model car with a PV cell on the roof that powers it. ‘I can only guarantee it for a couple of million years’ he tells him, ‘and then the sun might go out’.'

    ...but I suspect that line is past it's use-by date.

  2. yeah - I think Werner probably does too - but hey - it's recycling!