COVENTRY, England - More lucrative British incentives to produce energy from rotting and gasified waste are driving a push to biogas, following a wider European trend.
More farmers aim to use crop waste to generate electricity from burning biogas while big business is considering the same for industrial waste, after Britain introduced more generous support in April.
And new incentives from 2011 to produce renewable heat are adding to a gradual push to replace the fossil fuel natural gas.
It's a technology which is about to see its day, said National Grid's Mark Fairbairn, who anticipated biogas could supply nearly half Britain's heating needs by 2050, as a green alternative to natural gas.
Compressed biogas could also meet transport needs, he told the European Bioenergy Expo and Conference.
British landfill rubbish and sewage operators already burn methane -- also called biogas -- to produce power. The new incentives will likely divert more waste for a wider range of energy uses, including heating and transport.
That would follow what has already begun in Germany, where biogas is injected into the gas grid, and in Sweden, where many vehicles run on the gas, and Spain, which has an ambition to run half Madrid's local buses on biogas from next year, said Johann Hudde of Sweden's Greenlane Biogas.
Things are changing, and that's here in the UK as well, Hudde told the conference near Coventry.
Using biogas produced from rotting or gasified waste to generate heat or power avoids venting the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, making it a climate-friendly option. It may also be a more secure, long-term energy option than importing natural gas.
The new UK incentives are part of the country's drive to get 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wood, wind and solar power by 2020, compared with 2-3 percent now.
Biogas isn't without its problems: it is more costly than natural gas in Britain, requiring incentives.
And in Germany, plants called anaerobic digesters (AD) often run on rotting maize, not waste. Using farmland to produce energy instead of food harmed the standing of liquid biofuels -- partly blamed last year for a global hike in food prices.
British farmers aim to cash in on the new incentives by collecting biogas in AD plants run on various mixes of dung, grass, crops such as maize and municipal food waste.
The end product, or digestate, is nitrogen-rich and can be used to replace fertilizer.
Operators expect to install about 20 AD plants in Britain in the next year, adding to 20-30 operating now, with an industry target of 1,000 by 2020. More than 5,000 plants generate about 1,400 megawatts of power across Europe now, experts said.
The prospect of higher incentives prompted Climate Change Capital to invest 6 million pounds ($9.64 million) in UK biogas company Renewable Zukunft last year.
That has brought (the premium for) UK green electricity to something like that in Germany, said Climate Change Capital's Alex Betts. UK support will be replaced next year with a simpler green electricity price premium called a feed-in tariff.
Germany's renewable energy sector has developed under a feed-in tariff introduced in 2000.
British Sugar's Richard Stark said his company was contemplating building a biogas plant in Britain using crop waste from sugar extraction. It is essential that the (support) policy intent is clear and the horizons are long-term, he said.
(Reporting by Gerard Wynn; editing by Christopher Johnson)