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Energy

Combining Biogas and Solar, the Best Energy Deal in Brazil

Panoramic view of Vargeão, the town where Anélio Thomazzoni, a pig farmer and large producer of biogas electricity in southern Brazil, lives. The 3,500 inhabitants of the municipality are largely small farmers who descend from Italian immigrants that came to Brazil in the 20th century. As the main economic activity in the western state of Santa Catarina, pig farming represents great potential for biogas production. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Panoramic view of Vargeão, the town where Anélio Thomazzoni, a pig farmer and large producer of biogas electricity in southern Brazil, lives. The 3,500 inhabitants of the municipality are largely small farmers who descend from Italian immigrants that came to Brazil in the 20th century. As the main economic activity in the western state of Santa Catarina, pig farming represents great potential for biogas production. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

VARGEÃO, Brazil, Oct 2 2019 (IPS) - “Biogas is the best energy, it has no contraindications,” and if you combine it with solar it becomes “the best energy business,” at least in Brazil, says Anélio Thomazzoni.

His enthusiasm is not merely rhetorical. He raises about 38,000 pigs on his property, Gavea Farm, and uses their manure to produce biogas that generates electricity, about 280,000 kilowatts/hour, for his own consumption and for third parties.

He is also building a larger biodigester and is preparing to install 6,000 square metres of solar panels on idle land on his farm, to generate another 130,000 kilowatt hours per month, in a region where a typical family consumes less than 1,000 kilowatts per month.

“I will have solar energy during the day and electricity from biogas when there is no sun”, the “most profitable forula in the world” in terms of energy and with benefits to the environment, Thomazzoni said.

“In addition, solar energy will allow me to save part of the biogas that I will convert into biomethane,” he told IPS on his 100-hectare farm that he owns with his brother.

Biomethane, a fuel equivalent to natural gas, is produced by purifying biogas. It should become more important as a result of the government’s plan to create a “new natural gas market” with a supply at reduced prices due to the growing deep-water production off Brazil’s shore.

“Alessandro Gardemann, president of the Brazilian Biogas Association (Abiogas), told IPS, “The gas pipeline network only supplies areas near the coast, so in the interior of the country the solution will be locally produced biogas.”

Trucks will have biomethane in a country where they are already made to run on natural gas, he said. The country has 1.9 million cargo vehicles, which provide 60 percent of cargo transport and move most of the agricultural production, according to transportation authorities.

The entrepreneurial spirit of Thomazzoni, who has lived all of his 56 years in the municipality of Vargeão, population 3,500, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, is alive and well.

Pig farmer Anélio Thomazzoni stands next to the three biodigesters with which he currently produces biogas for the generation of 280,000 kilowatt/hours on his farm in the small municipality of Vargeão, in southern Brazil. Part of the biofuel will be purified to transform it into biomethane, while 6,000 square metres of solar panels are installed to generate 130,000 kilowatts/hour. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Pig farmer Anélio Thomazzoni stands between the three biodigesters with which he currently produces biogas for the generation of 280,000 kilowatt/hours on his farm in the small municipality of Vargeão, in southern Brazil. Part of the biofuel will be purified to transform it into biomethane, while 6,000 square metres of solar panels are installed to generate 130,000 kilowatts/hour. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

He is building a new farm on another 50-hectare property, to raise an additional 30,000 pigs, but genetically improved breeding animals. In addition to meat, they will produce biogas, electricity and biofertiliser.

The Thomazzoni family moved from Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, to Vargeão in 1957, in one of the waves of southern migration to the north and west of the country.

Initially dedicated to traditional crops, such as corn and later soy, he shifted to pig farming three decades ago. In 2003 they had about 10,000 pigs and began to produce biogas, in response to a demand from environmental authorities, in a state with strict environmental requirements.

He owned the first biodigester in western Santa Catarina, thanks to credits from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

Since 2015 it has been generating electricity from biogas, after two years of technological difficulties and a near bankruptcy, because the distribution concessionaire, Centrales Eléctricas de Santa Catarina, demanded the installation of cables and took 20 months to authorise the generation of electricity.

“I had stopped dreaming,” having purchased the generators and equipment and with no way to pay the loans that were falling due, Thomazzoni said.

A new biodigester, three times bigger than the previous ones, is under construction at the Thomazzoni brothers' Gavea farm in southern Brazil. To the sides are some of the 32 sheds where pigs are raised in different phases of their lives: maternity, nursery and fattening. In the last two decades the business has diversified with the production of biogás, electricity and biofertilisers. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A new biodigester, three times bigger than the previous ones, is under construction at the Thomazzoni brothers’ Gavea farm in southern Brazil. To the sides are some of the 32 sheds where pigs are raised in different phases of their lives: maternity, nursery and fattening. In the last two decades the business has diversified with the production of biogás, electricity and biofertilisers. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The road to success also included other setbacks, such as the loss of a biodigester canvas carried off by heavy winds.

“I planned and did everything we have here,” says the agribusinessman, pointing out some of his own “inventions” with which he replaced equipment so expensive in the market that “it would have made my business unviable.”

One is the use of water heated by an electric generator that pumps it through tubes that run into the biodigester, raising the internal temperature to boost the fermentation and productivity of the manure, especially during the wintertime when temperatures go down.

Another is a compressor that injects air into the biodigester, at a cost of 180 reais (45 dollars) – 330 times cheaper than the three filters he had purchased. “There are swindlers in the market who hinder biogas projects,” he said.

He uses the semi-solid waste from the biodigestion process, technically known as digestate, as fertiliser for planting hay, which is more productive because it is a perennial crop that is incorporated into an “integrated production” system as livestock feed. Corn and soy only produce two alternating annual crops, he explained.

Biogas is at the center of a chain that is the very “description of the circular economy,” according to Gardemann, also director of Geo Energética, a company that runs a large biogas from sugarcane waste project in the state of São Paulo.

Anélio Thomazzoni stands next to one of the three electric generators on his farm in southern Brazil. In addition to electricity, the equipment heats the water that is pumped through tubes running into the biodigesters to raise the temperature high enough to ferment pig manure. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Anélio Thomazzoni stands next to one of the three electric generators on his farm in southern Brazil. In addition to electricity, the equipment heats the water that is pumped through tubes running into the biodigesters to raise the temperature high enough to ferment pig manure. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The waste from the production of food or livestock feed is used to produce biogas, whose by-product is returned to the soil as nutrients for new food production, he pointed out.

“Biogas is a 24-hour battery,” he said, to emphasise that it is “continuously available energy that can be stored and used at any time” of the day or night, qualities that are more necessary now, when the use of intermittent sources such as wind and solar power is on the rise.

Abiogas aims to raise the share of biogas to 10 percent of Brazil’s energy mix, up from less than one percent today. It has the potential to supply “40 percent of the national electricity demand or substitute 70 percent of Brazil’s diesel consumption,” according to the industry association.

“The announced potential is not always real,” warned Ricardo de Gouvêa, Santa Catarina state secretary of agriculture, at the Southern Brazilian Forum on Biogas and Biomethane, held Sept. 4-6 in Chapecó, a city in the western part of the state.

Of the agricultural inputs, listed as the main source, half are not used or have other uses such as direct planting, because there is still no fully validated technology and the benefits of biogas often do not offset the costs of implementation, especially for small-scale producers, he said.

But “biogas is in fact the best source and now is its turn,” said Péricles Pinheiro, head of New Business at CHP Brazil, a company that provides equipment and solutions for distributed generation of electricity produced from gas.

It represents more continuously available energy at a time of unstable electric supply due to the growing use of intermittent sources, the approaching end of the useful life of 80,000 kilometres of transmission lines, and a distortion in national consumption data, he argued.

The higher cost of energy in the hours of greatest consumption, from 5 to 9 PM, made many consumers turn to their own diesel generators in the evenings, causing an apparent “drop” in demand after dark, when people turn on their lights and many household appliances.

If this information is not taken into account, the operation of the national power grid can increase the risk of blackouts. Biogas would help reduce that risk by expanding its share of the energy mix, Pinheiro said.

 
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