The future of gas in South Africa: Biogas

Independence, supply and price security, and sustainability are critical strategic issues in the energy sector. Furthermore, companies and governments are hoping to achieve net zero soon, which is why there is a heavy investment and shift towards renewables. While renewables are the energy source of the future, society needs viable long-term energy sources to help them transition; that’s why the future of gas in South Africa is biogas.

South Africa relies on coal and oil for 80% of its energy needs, making it a significant carbon emitter. Given that South Africa exports so much, it is critical to not be penalised for the products’ carbon footprint to remain competitive. This is where biogas comes in: it’s a renewable and reliable form of carbon-neutral natural energy source that is set to transform the future of South Africa’s gas landscape and energy mix.

With more than 20 000 biogas plants in Europe alone, this tried and trusted technology is vital to creating alternative energy sources in countries that need to diversify theirs. South Africa is a prime example of this: in addition to regular power cuts, struggling infrastructure, along with the volatile prices of diesel and the dwindling supply of natural gas, has made the need to find a sustainable and reliable solution for businesses that rely on diesel and gas technology critical.

How biogas works

Biogas is typically produced from two sources: waste or energy crops. The diagram below explains how biogas can be produced from purpose-grown energy crops:

During this process, special crops are grown and harvested before going through anaerobic digestion, a natural process that occurs when microorganisms break down organic material without oxygen. The process produces biogas, which can then be upgraded and separated into two main products:

1. Biogenic CO2

Biogenic CO2 is liquified and supplied as green food-grade CO2 (applications like the pressure dispensing of soft drinks, beer and cider) or converted into urea which improves soil quality for enhanced biogas crop yields.

2. Renewable biomethane

Renewable biomethane can be transported via road, pipeline or virtual pipeline as a replacement for natural/petroleum gas or diesel. So technically, what we refer to as ‘biogas’ as an energy solution is biomethane. People typically use the terms interchangeably.

South Africa is heading towards a natural-gas cliff

Manufacturing industries that produce goods such as ceramics, brick and food require large amounts of heat. They typically use natural gas as an economical energy source to produce this heat. Historically, all the natural gas in South Africa comes from Mozambique via the Republic of Mozambique Pipeline Investments Company (ROMPCO)/Sasol pipeline. Unfortunately, this gas is depleted, and the available supply is declining rapidly. In the face of growing demand for heat and power, the situation is problematic and leading South Africa to what experts call the gas cliff. Once the national gas supply is depleted, importation will be the only option unless a local, sustainable supply of methane can come online.

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The challenges with the alternatives

With the dwindling supply of local natural gas from southern Mozambique, industrial users will need to tap into alternative supplies in the future or move away from using gas in their processes.

One option would be to explore alternative natural gas resources in South Africa like offshore, coal-bed methane or shale-based sources. There’s also the possibility of extending the ROMPCO pipeline. However, both options will be challenging due to funding difficulties for carbon-positive projects in the private sector and other red-tape issues in the public sector.

Businesses could also consider moving away from gas and converting a business to another form of power. Challenges here include:

  • The capital cost of such a conversion
  • Compatibility of another fuel (for example, coal) with the business’s processes
  • The environmental implications of such a move
  • The availability and reliability of the national grid

Given the hurdles of these options, the consensus is that imported LNG is the most likely alternative to the current lack of supply. And the numbers back this up: according to the Industrial Gas Users Association of South Africa (IGUA-SA), up to 75% of the gas used in South Africa will be imported by 2027, and this gas will go towards increased industrial use and power generation.

Gas import prices aren’t looking promising for South Africa. By 2024, we could face gas prices above R300 per gigajoule (GJ) versus R68.39-120 per gigajoule today – with the price and demand only increasing as time passes. Add to this the waning strength of the rand and the need to build infrastructure for gas imports; businesses could be left in a dangerous lurch, trying to bridge the gap between their gas consumption and the available (expensive) alternatives.

How biogas can help bridge the gap in South Africa

Locally produced biogas (biomethane) will provide businesses with a renewable and reliable alternative that is not subject to international logistics challenges and international gas price fluctuations.

It provides a locally produced, renewable gas resource with 24-hour availability and can use the existing gas infrastructure to play a vital and cost-effective role in the South African renewable energy mix.

This climate-friendly alternative can also help businesses reduce their carbon footprint, attain their sustainability targets and secure their energy supply with a green gas solution that’s in abundance. Biogas generates electricity, heat, and fuel while providing additional services like waste management and fertiliser production. Producing biogas has the additional benefit of injecting green food-grade CO2, organic compost and carbon credits into the local economy.

And the opportunities don’t stop there: converting diesel engines to gas engines is another way businesses can add more predictability to their budget. A company can convert its fleet of trucks or a factory’s diesel generator production lines to use biomethane instead of diesel, further contributing to its sustainability goals – and reduce its diesel costs by up to 50%.

The AgriGas approach

AgriGas started in 2021 with one mission: to become the biggest renewable biomethane provider in South Africa. They plan to construct a portfolio of biogas plants near Sasolburg to produce clean, dependable and sustainable biomethane before injecting the biomethane into the existing national gas infrastructure for easy transport to off-takers.

As mentioned, the biogas industry globally is already established. Although it’s in its infancy in South Africa, AgriGas is doing research unique to the country’s resources, climate, needs and future challenges. The crops used by AgriGas have been hand-selected and researched with environmental, agricultural, and agronomic factors in mind to produce the most cost-effective biomethane.

Perhaps best of all is how the communities around the AgriGas plant will benefit: the farming operations will support the community by empowering them to produce the biogas crops. At the same time, valuable spaces like rehabilitated mining land can also grow biogas crops. It’s important to note that producing energy crops will not displace the farming of traditional crops. In fact, it will create an additional agricultural market that is easily accessible given the excess farmland available in South Africa.

With a customer pipeline of 2 petajoules (PJ) and more on the books, AgriGas will transform the gas landscape in South Africa and create a biogas framework that benefits not only its customers but offers a new avenue of gas power generation in South Africa as a whole.

SolarAfrica, leading South Africa's biogas future

SolarAfrica is a biogas partner that can assist your organisation to initiate and run the project. It has the experience and expertise to help you navigate complex engineering frameworks, regulations, and viable business models to make your biogas plant a productive asset.

Biogas not only allows you to power your facilities, it also enables you to generate revenue from excess capacity. Solar Africa offers an energy trading service with clients who would happily pay for your clean energy.

SolarAfrica has a suite of cost-effective energy solutions that will keep your operations running despite the national energy crisis. The team can build an energy source on-premise or miles away.

With battery storage from SolarAfrica, you can easily manage your energy needs no matter the time or demand. You will also have the option to supplement your demand with clean energy from independent power producers nationwide.