Pig producers across the globe are being encouraged to invest in renewable resources.

In South Africa, Cape Advanced Engineering (CAE) has been developing technology for the biogas sector under the “Ornanergy” label since 2007. CAE has now teamed up with a large-scale pig-farming operation, Humphries Boerdery, to construct a viable anaerobic digestion power plant on a farm at Bela Bela in the northern Limpopo Province.

South African biogas project  

Humphries Boerdery’s pig unit has about 1,000 breeding sows and enough pig stalls to accommodate up to 15,000 animals. All the slurry is flushed into a large lined and covered lagoon, which holds 9,000 tons. The unheated and unmixed slurry generates enough biogas to power a new 110,000-Watt plant that is linked to the country’s National Grid, which takes all the surplus electricity.

A spokeswoman for CAE said the initial demonstration and evaluation phase of this project has already been completed, and the company is installing a bigger 250,000-Watt power plant to facilitate transmission of electricity for sale to third-party customers.

This renewable power will attract premium prices, because it is generated from a sustainable farming operation that is also certified as not using any growth stimulants or antibiotics in the production of food.

According to CAE, the company has developed a new design for fully mixed and heated bio-digesters using the covered lagoon concept, along with a number of other new innovations to reduce costs. The only threat to the emergence of a new, viable renewable electricity industry on farms in South Africa is potential legislative delays.

China’s alternative energy plan  

In China, meanwhile, the government is pushing ahead with alternative energy systems in its rural areas and farmers, in general, are pleased with its biogas programme, says Haibing Ma, from the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its fact-based analysis of critical global issues, including climate and energy, food and agriculture, and the green economy.

"The Chinese government will keep promoting the development and deployment of renewable energy projects in rural areas, with more large-scale biogas plants being built on China's pig farms,” says Ma. “One of the major goals of the country’s 12th Five-Year-Plan is to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas and access to clean energy is seen as a promising way of accomplishing that.”

China is spending millions of dollars on what he described as “quite ambitious” policies to increase the use of biogas on farms in future. What's lacking, however, is clear, reliable data on the outcomes of the policies.
Haibing Ma points out that small-scale hydropower projects are also very popular in China’s rural areas, with a total of some 45,000 hydro-powered micro-generation units now providing electricity to more than 300 million Chinese people living in the countryside.

Small-scale British operations  

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While not trying to compete on this level, the British government and the British Pig Executive (BPEX) are also promoting the installation of biogas plants on the country’s pig farms to provide alternative fossil-free sources of power and help producers turn their slurries into an asset, rather than waste.

But BPEX environment manager Nigel Penlington says more work needs to be done to develop a viable small-scale bio-digestion plant because UK pig farmers do not have the money to invest in large systems, or the amount of waste needed to keep them generating biogas.

To meet the growing demand for information about renewable energy, the BPEX has produced a range of fact sheets providing producers with need-to-know data on all renewable energy technologies that could be employed on pig farms. These include wind turbines, heat pumps, biogas (or anaerobic digestion), biomass and solar power.

“We are handling a lot of enquiries about renewable energy now, particularly since the government introduced its Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) compelling energy suppliers to make regular payments to those who generate their own electricity from renewable or low carbon sources,” says Penlington.

Denmark biogas plants growing  

Scientists in Denmark, which has led the way in biogas production on pig farms in Europe, are currently working on projects to get more energy out of pig slurry.

The government there is encouraging the industry to build at least 50 more big biogas plants in rural areas, but Rene Damkyær, chief executive officer at Denmark’s Innovation Centre, AgroTech, which specialises in providing cutting- edge knowledge of biology and technology, says the lack of finance is holding the sector back at the moment.
However, he says pig farmers are keen to go forward, because they know anaerobic digestion can help them deal with their slurry disposal problems, as well as provide cheap energy.

“We are all holding our breath here at the moment,” says Damkyær. “I am confident we will see progress in the future, with either many more innovative smaller-scale on-farm biogas plants, or 50 large scale ones, where farmers work together to provide the feedstock.”

He believes this will be driven forward by the growing demand from the Danish society to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Brazil’s green power push  

This desire to move away from fossil fuels can also be seen in Brazil, which already derives a lot of its fuel from energy crops, particularly sugar cane, as well as exploiting renewable energy technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, hydro power, wind turbines and solar power to power the nation.

Farmers and the government appear to be working together as much as possible, with the blessing of the population to try and generate even more green power to cater for the country, setting an example which bodes well for pig farmers in South America, as well as those in other parts the pig-producing world.