Role of biogas in Spain’s urban heavy transport sector set to grow

New government regulation due to be approved in March to multiply public and private sector initiatives

The production and use of biogas as a low-carbon solution for urban heavy transport looks likely to increase in Spain, with government regulation due to be approved in March multiplying public and private sector initiatives, experts have told Fastmarkets Agriculture, although the country’s current consumption levels remain low.

According to Eugenia Sillero, secretary-general of Spain’s association for renewable gas in transport, Gasnam, the potential for the production of biomethane for use in urban heavy transport in Spain is “practically unlimited”.

Gasnam calculates that Spain could produce 162 terawatt-hours per year, equivalent to 45% of the country’s current natural gas consumption.

“The development of biomethane production in Spain has been prevented up to now by delays in developing a regulatory framework, but this lack is due to be remedied by the end of March,” after which time, biomethane will be able to obtain a guarantee of origin, Sillero said.

“The government’s 2022 road map for biogas projected a production of 10.4 terawatt-hours per year by 2030, but the level of ambition is set to be raised by 300% or 400% in line with the objectives of RePowerEU,” she told Fastmarkets Agriculture.

Biomethane as an alternative fuel

There are currently six biomethane plants operated by four companies: Naturgy, Ham, Axpo, and Enagas, while a further 200 projects have been identified, including MCP’s projected plant at Arazuri in Navarre.

In 2022 meanwhile, gas-powered engines already accounted for 23.2% and 21.3% of Spain’s new bus/coach and light industrial vehicle registrations, respectively.

“Biomethane is the same molecule as natural gas, so it can be distributed via the existing network of 250 natural gas filling stations and the natural gas bunkering facilities at 15 Spanish ports,” Sillero said, adding that the fuel had “every possibility of being cheaper than other alternatives as a fuel for urban heavy transport.”

Earlier this month, Spanish energy company Cepsa said it would decarbonize the urban heavy transport sector using an alternative product which it calls bioautogas, in alliance with engine manufacturer BeGas, other motor manufacturers, and an association of municipalities.

Hydrotreated vegetable oil and other biofuels

According to Pepe Parames, commercial director at BeGas, bioautogas is a biopropane that can be extracted as a subproduct of the manufacture of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) and other biofuels at Cepsa’s refineries in Huelva and Cadiz.

Cepsa says that it has the current capacity to produce 7000 tonnes per year and hopes to be producing 100,000 tonnes by 2030.

However, according to Sillero, “the production capacity will be limited given the scarcity of feedstocks for products like HVO.”

In 2021, Zaragoza became the first Spanish city to introduce biogas to fuel urban buses with the purchase of two vehicles powered by biomethane produced from pig slurry.

Last July, the Pamplona metropolitan authority (MCP) also adopted biomethane as a transport fuel with the purchase of 13 vehicles, while in September, the Madrid city council put 20 biomethane-powered vehicles in service to cover one of its routes.

According to Jesús Velasco, director of transport for MCP, the cost and the availability of biogas from the metropolitan authority’s waste and wastewater treatment plants both played a part in MCP’s decision to adopt biogas alongside electric power for fuelling its vehicles.

“We were inspired by a visit to Sweden, where biogas from wastewater treatment is being used to power municipal vehicles, to exploit our position as both a producer and consumer of energy,” he told Fastmarkets.

MCP’s buses are currently using certified renewable gas manufactured by the multinational Naturgy, but the plan is to switch to locally-produced biomethane once the necessary plants have been built to upgrade the raw biogas from the municipal waste and wastewater plants.

Other municipalities, principally in Catalonia, have taken a keen interest in the Pamplona initiative, but where municipal authorities do not have combined responsibility for transport, water, and waste management, obtaining locally-produced biomethane is “more complicated,” he said.

The gas-powered vehicles cost an average €350,000 (£307,758) compared with €500,000 for a fully-electric equivalent and offer a slight advantage in terms of flexibility of service, according to MCP.

By the end of 2024, MCP will have expanded its biogas fleet by 12 units and, thanks to a € 4 million grant from EU NextGen funds, its electric fleet by a further 20 units, while by 2030, MCP’s fleet of 159 buses will be two-thirds biogas and one-third electric, Velasco said.

According to Carlos Bravo, Spanish transport expert for Transport and Environment, “from the point of view of emissions, 100% biomethane from waste fermentation may be an acceptable solution, but the scalability is very limited. It’s not going to be the solution for decarbonizing the transport sector”.

“Over the whole lifecycle of vehicles, direct electric power is cheaper than any form of combustion engine, and studies have been done which demonstrate that,” he told us.

He also warned of the health impact of using biogas to power urban heavy transport, detailing that ultrafine particles emitted by gas-powered vehicles “are even more dangerous than the particles emitted by petrol and diesel engines because they can be even more easily absorbed.”

However, Sillero highlighted that air pollution from particles remains a problem affecting all technologies, even electric vehicles.

“We, as a society, generate a lot of waste which generates a lot of harmful emissions, so exploiting gas from that waste is good for the planet,” she said, calling biomethane “an immediate solution with an immediate impact which we can use while other technologies are being developed.”

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