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Cross-sectoral Initiative in Northern Ireland Produces Biomethane to Achieve Decarbonization

Our member organization, the Center for Competitiveness (CforC), is spearheading a groundbreaking initiative in Northern Ireland focused on decarbonizing the energy grid by producing biomethane from farmyard manure. Agriculture plays a pivotal role in Northern Ireland's economy and contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike conventional methane, which stands as the second-largest contributor to climate change, biomethane is a powerful ally in the fight against global warming by utilizing biogenic carbon. Since last year, the CforC has led a cross-sectoral initiative with four local businesses and researchers from the Queen's University of Belfast. The model, supported by government grants, has been tested and is ready to be exported to different locations in the region and elsewhere in the globe. In this interview, Dr. James Young, Director of the CforC, comments on the organization's role as a facilitator, the arrangements with the local businesses involved, and what is needed to reach net zero.


How does the project work?

James Young: The project aims to transform farmyard manure into biomethane gas, a decarbonized biogenic carbon source that will serve to supply transport and industrial processes. The manure is transported from the farmyard to a centralized biorefinery within Northern Ireland, where various components are separated to create biomethane and recover nutrients. After that, we inject the biomethane into our gas grid, so we will start to displace our natural gas consumption.


What is the goal of this initiative?

James Young: Our goal is to create a decarbonized society on a cross-sectoral basis, aligning the work and needs of the four companies involved, which operate in manufacturing, transport, and agriculture. We also want to recover soil nutrients, an extremely valuable commodity for any agricultural system. Currently, Northern Ireland has a large surplus of nutrients due to the importation of fossil fertilizer from Brazil and countries in North America. We want to reharvest and export our phosphate to other countries to create a circular economy model.


Which companies are involved in the project?

James Young: The project encompasses four major companies associated with the carbon recovery cooperative across Northern Ireland. The first is a milk processing cooperative with 1300 dairy farmers known as Dale Farm. The second is a logistics company known as Road Safety Contracts, which hauls sewage sludge across the country and has the capability to move farmyard manure to a central processing facility that we are proposing to build. The third company is a cement manufacturer called CEMCOR. Finally, the fourth company is a block paving manufacturer producing bricks for footpaths, creating walls, and building structures, the Tobermore Concrete Products.


What enabled the arrangement connecting these stakeholders?

James Young: When the United Nations Conference of the Parties 26 (COP) happened in Glasgow in 2021, each of these companies became subjected to Environmental Social Governance (ESG) goals issued by the United Kingdom (UK) government. ESG is now a monitoring tool within the competition and bidding process for various products and services supplied by UK and global businesses. By then, it was recognized that these companies must produce at least 30% decarbonized products by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. We pitched the project to the four companies we had targeted, and they all agreed to join. The CforC drafted a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) detailing the roles of each stakeholder and stating that it would operate as the facilitator and liaise with an external equipment provider.


What other roles did the CforC assume?

James Young: The MoU also stated that the Center for Competitiveness would work with the various government departments to build momentum and explain the project, informing strategies to decarbonize on a cross-sectoral basis. We also took the responsibility to deal with the financial management of government grants and other funding streams. The fact that the CforC is a not-for-profit organization helped to build confidence with the government departments. They knew they were funding something that was not for profit initially but would become a commercially profitable activity.


Could this model be replicated elsewhere?

James Young: This process can be entirely replicated. We want to replicate it about 15 to 16 times across the UK and Ireland. But we will also be able to replicate this through knowledge transfer on an exportation basis to other regions globally.


Do you believe we still need new technologies to decarbonize the economy, or do we need more political will to reach net zero?

James Young: The innovation comes from how pre-existing technologies are manipulated and reconfigured to fit new purposes. We can repurpose and reshape them, but we could use new technologies to complete the work package of achieving net zero. Additionally, I think we should not overlook the importance of having focused political will to help address climate change. Too often, non-contentious political decisions are made to suit typical short election cycle times.It has been said that politicians know exactly what needs to be done to achieve net zero. They just don't know how to get re-elected when they have done it.


Are you optimistic about getting to net zero?

James Young: We need buy-in to get to net zero. We need to implement a  successful strategy that must be owned by everyone in society, government, industry, and academia. We need to aggregate our resources and collaborate. We have to cluster wherever we can and be ambitious in our actions. We need to maximize whatever shines, flows, blows, and grows in a sustainable way and not rely on fossil energy resources to help our global economies grow.


First trial of biomethane used within a forklift on site at Tobermore Concrete products facilitated by CforC


Small delegation of Mid Ulster Biogas group to an Anaerobic Digestion facility in Germany.

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