Conclusions from the Biogas Association Serbia Conference “Sustainable Development of the Biogas Sector in Serbia – from Biogas to Biomethane”

Conclusions from the Biogas Association Serbia Conference “Sustainable Development of the Biogas Sector in Serbia – from Biogas to Biomethane”

In collaboration with the Biogas Association of Serbia and the German Biogas Association, Fachverband Biogas e.V., on October 19, 2023, a panel conference titled ‘Sustainable Development of the Biogas Sector in Serbia – from Biogas to Biomethane’ was held. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management of the Republic of Serbia provided institutional support for the conference.

The Biogas Association of Serbia is the umbrella organization for biogas in the Republic of Serbia and collaborates with the German Biogas Association, Fachverband Biogas e.V., on the second large-scale partnership project aimed at strengthening and stabilizing the biogas sector in Serbia.

The primary motivation for organizing this conference was to encourage discussion and exchange of opinions on the new role of biogas – introducing biomethane to the market in Serbia by implementing legal regulations for biomethane. This would enable future biomethane producers to inject it into the national gas grid and underscore the significance of introducing biomethane to the market in Serbia. Additionally, the conference was organized to discuss the ecological aspect of biogas, as well as the sustainable aspects of biogas production—contributing to environmental protection, decarbonization, circular economy—and to share the experiences of key sector participants in defining proposals for improving and sustainably developing the biogas production sector.

The past three years have brought significant changes to the sector, altering the way we perceive biogas plants. They are no longer just producers of electricity; they are now pillars of ecological sustainability, and the crucial role of biogas is in environmental management.

Since the auctions introduced in the biogas sector in 2021 have not yet begun due to the fact that the legal regulations are still pending finalization, the support of relevant institutions, primarily the Ministry of Mining and Energy responsible for the legal regulations regarding biogas, is of paramount importance. Only together, through dialogue and understanding, can we pave the way for further sector development.

The biogas sector stands at a crossroads today. Will we follow the path of European ecological trends, as Germany does, considering that biogas plays a crucial role in environmental protection? Or will we miss the opportunity for growth and advancement? Biogas technology is progressing rapidly, evolving and improving, and biomethane as a potential next phase in the development of the biogas sector was thoroughly discussed at the conference.

The conference was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management of the Republic of Serbia, the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the Republic of Serbia, representatives and experts from the Biogas Association of Serbia, representatives and experts from the German Biogas Association, biogas experts and university professors, representatives of the UNDP organization, as well as a representative of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Serbia.

The conference was opened by Danko Vuković, President of the Biogas Association of Serbia, summarizing the experiences from the previous period since the introduction of auctions in the biogas sector. He emphasized that the narrative associated with biogas plants has changed and they are no longer just producers of electrical energy but also make a strategically important contribution to the ecology and agriculture of Serbia. Danko Vuković expressed gratitude to our German partners, Fachverband Biogas e.V., for their significant support and wished for a successful continuation of the collaboration. He highlighted that the conference represents an important step forward for all of us. He stressed how grateful we are to the partners from the German Biogas Association who have supported us for many years and shared their invaluable knowledge and expertise with us. He added that experiences from the German biogas sector and German biogas plants have deeply enriched our knowledge and influenced not only the association’s representatives but the entire biogas sector in the Republic of Serbia. He also emphasized that the Biogas Association of Serbia, as the umbrella association for biogas in the RS, has the responsibility to lead sectoral changes, to be the voice of its members, operators, investors, and all those involved in the sector, and that the strength of the association lies precisely in the process of making decisions together, where each member has an equal voting right. He hoped that today’s meeting would be another opportunity for active participation of all members in the dialogue and that their experience and knowledge would enrich the conclusions of this conference. He added that the primary concern for all of us should be environmental protection and leaving a legacy for future generations, as we are only passing through this planet and it is our responsibility not only to preserve what we have inherited but also to improve and leave a better world for future generations.

Following Mr. Vuković, the assembly was addressed by Bojan Vranjković, State Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management.

Mr. Vranjković emphasized that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management always has a reliable and dedicated partner. He particularly emphasized that the Ministry of Agriculture, through incentives for investments related to biogas production, participates in a 50% reimbursement of the value of realized eligible investments. Support is provided through the IPARD 3 measure. Mr. Vranjković also stressed that if agricultural farms decide to produce biogas, they will become energy independent and will be able to manage ecological waste in an environmentally friendly way, as well as stabilize their income. He also highlighted that the implementation of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans will remain in focus in the upcoming period, and through the IPARD 3 program cycle, they will continue supporting investments in renewable energy sources with an additional 10% incentive for this type of investment, expecting additional beneficiaries of incentives in line with higher incentive levels.

The representative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, State Secretary Ivana Hadži StoÅ¡ić, emphasized the importance of building biogas plants in preserving natural resources and protecting the environment. She also mentioned that, considering the limited capacities of natural resources, environmental pollution, and climate change, the Government of RS is dedicated to fulfilling the implementation of the goals of the UN 2030 Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. Ms. Hadži StoÅ¡ić particularly emphasized that, in line with Serbia’s obligations as a UN member, signatory of the Paris Agreement, and a candidate country for EU membership, Serbia is fully committed to achieving the goals of these international agreements. State Secretary Ivana Hadži StoÅ¡ić concluded that further development and wider use of renewable energy sources are very important for the Republic of Serbia, both in terms of increasing economic competitiveness and energy security and in terms of environmental protection, aiming to reduce GHG emissions, air pollution, and fulfilling international obligations regarding combating climate change. She highlighted that Serbia has a high potential for using renewable energy sources and that it should definitely be utilized. She emphasized that in a biogas plant, waste becomes a resource, and considering all the benefits of biogas for the environment, she added that biogas is a powerful and environmentally friendly energy source. She also stressed the importance of cooperation among all relevant stakeholders in environmental protection and highlighted that only through joint discussion and collaboration can we make positive changes, emphasizing the conference’s significance in connecting all mentioned stakeholders.

On behalf of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ms. Aleksandra Zec greeted the assembly and emphasized that the topic of this conference is globally significant. She also stressed that only by transitioning from fossil fuels can we ensure sustainable energy supply. Given that energy freedom is the most important freedom today, the German government has allocated 1.5 trillion euros to the energy sector in Serbia since 2000.

President of the Board of Directors of the Biogas Association of Serbia, Danko Vuković, in the second part of the conference titled ‘The New Role of Biogas – Introduction of Biomethane into the Serbian Market,’ presented the association’s goals and ways to support the development of the biogas industry. He spoke about the future of the biogas sector in Serbia and the positive effects of biogas on the environment through the treatment of bio-waste. Mr. Vuković emphasized that the Biogas Association of Serbia is extremely active in providing support to the entire sector and its members and currently has more than 60 members. He highlighted the strategic importance of biogas for Serbia’s energy sector and the country’s energy independence, stating that if all agricultural waste were utilized, it could potentially generate 500 MW from biogas. Furthermore, if all biogas were converted to the methane level, it could fulfill 50% of Serbia’s natural gas needs. Mr. Vuković added that the legislative framework for biomethane is not yet finalized and expressed the desire to discuss this matter with the relevant institutions, primarily with the Ministry of Mining and Energy, in order to change this and recognize biomethane as a strategically important form of biogas. Proposals for regulating the use of biomethane in our country were suggested. Mr. Vuković stressed that among all forms of renewable energy sources (RES), biogas is the most efficient in converting primary energy into electricity, being six times more efficient than solar and four times more efficient than wind. He also emphasized the importance of intensive collaboration with all three relevant ministries and international institutions to gain insight from international sectors. He underlined that the potential of biogas in Serbia is completely untapped.

Mr. Dirk Bonse, Head of the Renewable Gas Department of the German Biogas Association, addressed the assembly and spoke about the importance of biomethane and ways to utilize it. He emphasized that the use of biomethane is versatile and, besides being injected into the national gas network, it can also be used as fuel. The European goal through the RePower EU program is to produce 35 trillion cubic meters of biomethane by 2023. For this reason, the EU established the ‘Biometan Industrial Partnership’ to achieve this targeted biomethane production, as well as to identify barriers and highlight best practices that will be submitted to the European Commission. Concerning the potential of biomethane in the EU and beyond, Germany has the greatest potential. Mr. Bonse also mentioned that in terms of legal regulation, we must mention ‘Fit for 55’, according to which GHGs must be reduced by 55% compared to 1990. Europe aims to be completely climate-neutral by 2050. Mr. Bonse discussed the market use of biomethane in Germany and stated that the total sales in 2022 exceeded 11 TWh for the first time, with a noticeable and significant increase in

exports to Switzerland. The number of biogas plants in Germany is decreasing because the number of biomethane plants is increasing. Part of the biogas plants is upgraded to produce biomethane. In addition to being used as a substitute for natural gas, biomethane is used as Bio-CNG (compressed natural gas) for passenger vehicles, small vans, and buses, as well as Bio-LNG (liquid natural gas) for large trucks and maritime transport.

Mr. Žarko Petrović, Head of the Vital Development Sector at UNDP, addressed the audience, emphasizing that UNDP supports the use of biogas in the Republic of Serbia as an important and highly significant source of energy. UNDP has supported the biogas sector and biogas plants in the past ten years, together with the Ministry of Mining and Energy, across several ministry mandates, and has been part of the funding for six biogas plants. Mr. Petrović highlighted that a 1 MW biogas plant employs 5-15 people in rural areas (where biogas plants are built) and that constructing biogas plants is a motivation for people to stay in rural areas. He stressed that this social aspect is particularly important, and considering all the benefits, the question arises as to why there is not greater focus on biogas in the Republic of Serbia, potentially including biomethane. He also noted that the energy sector must have support from other sectors and emphasized how important it is that the conference received support from both the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management and the Ministry of Environmental Protection because organizing such a complex undertaking as biogas is not easy without multi-sectoral engagement. Finally, he emphasized that UNDP supports investments in biogas and the biogas sector and would gladly continue the support it has provided for ten years in cooperation with the Ministry of Mining and Energy, which included not only co-financing plants but also a range of other activities.

Ms. Smiljka Živanović from UNDP addressed the assembly, presenting the support provided by the UN Development Program through the project ‘EU for Green Agenda in Serbia’ to support specific investments. The project is funded by the EU with additional funding from the Governments of Sweden, Switzerland, and the Republic of Serbia and is implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Environmental Protection in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden and the European Investment Bank. Apart from legal and strategic support, this project offers support for concrete investments in business models of the private and public sectors in up to five areas of the green agenda. Ms. Živanović highlighted the importance of connecting different social categories to foster collaboration and implement the project.

In the third part of the conference, a panel discussion titled ‘Sustainable Aspects of Biogas Production – Contribution to Environmental Protection, Decarbonization, and Circular Economy’ was moderated by Prof. Dr. Đorđe Đatkov, a member of the Board of Directors of the Biogas Association of Serbia.

The panel participants were:

  • Dr. MiloÅ¡ Banjac, Full Professor, Department of Thermomechanics, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Belgrade.
  • Dr. Slobodan Cvetković, Senior Scientific Associate, Head of the Center for Ecology and Techno-economics, Institute of Chemistry, Technology, and Metallurgy.
  • Goran Knežević – Biogas Expert, Biogas Association of Serbia.
  • Dr. Stefan Rauh, Chief Operating Officer, German Biogas Association, Fachverband Biogas e.V.

The constructive and dynamic discussion at the conference resulted in conclusions:

The previous development of the biogas sector has resulted in increased knowledge and significance regarding the concept of biogas and biogas facilities. Among the services involved in the permitting process, including banks, a certain level of knowledge and trust towards the biogas sector has been acquired, which forms a good basis for further sector development. However, since 2021, there has been a lack of political will and necessary support through laws and subordinate legislation, following the definition and adoption of the Law on Renewable Energy Sources, along with accompanying subordinate regulations. The conclusion is that the biogas sector has been inappropriately equated with sectors that generate electrical energy from solar and wind energy, which have a singular purpose, namely, the production of electrical energy. Although biogas facilities require a higher specific investment, such facilities can generate a greater number of working hours (more electrical energy obtained) per unit installed capacity, manage waste, prevent environmental pollution, contribute to rural development, and comparably have the best effect on reducing climate change. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure cross-sectoral support (agriculture, energy, environment, economy) from relevant ministries, as the construction and operation of biogas facilities directly contribute to the development of all these sectors.

The further development of the biogas sector includes all activities that would contribute to greater utilization of energy obtained from biogas, digestate (residue from fermentation), and even other balances by using innovative approaches. This primarily includes the production of biomethane, additional utilization of thermal energy from cogeneration processes, additional treatment of digestate, and enhancement. Furthermore, the treatment of other types of potential raw materials for anaerobic fermentation, which are currently not represented, such as sewage sludge, municipal biodegradable waste, lignocellulosic biomass (grain straw, corn stalks), would significantly increase the potential for biogas production and, therefore, the positive effects it achieves. Although manure has been dominantly used as a raw material thus far, its potential is significantly greater, and a model needs to be found to motivate and reward biogas facility owners for its use because the positive effects of manure management for environmental protection are manifold compared to other raw materials.

The biogas sector has achieved satisfactory development since 2012 when the first legal and subordinate measures were introduced, enabling the construction and profitable operation of biogas facilities. However, too frequent changes in the amount of financial support have, on several occasions, deterred potential future investors primarily attracted to invest in this sector. By introducing auction principles according to the Law on Renewable Energy Sources from 2021, the biogas sector has been practically disqualified when directly compared with the generation of electrical energy from solar and wind energy, disregarding all other contributions for which biogas technology was developed and has thrived in numerous other European countries (Germany, Italy, the Netherlands). Starting in 2024, the first biogas facilities in Serbia will lose their status as privileged producers, i.e., their period of receiving subsidized prices for supplied electrical energy to the grid will expire. It is urgently necessary to find a model for the successful continuation of their operation. The reason is the existing infrastructure, which is paid off but still functional, so the production costs for electrical energy can be lower than for a newly built facility, thus making biogas facilities financially more competitive compared to other types of renewable energy sources. Additionally, these facilities are built on existing farms and already successfully manage this type of residue from agricultural production, but waste disposal streams from the food industry have also been established during years of operation. By 2030, considered as the time frame for achieving energy and climate goals in Europe, biogas facilities in such a position will have a total capacity of about 16 MWe. Biogas facilities generating electrical energy have an advantage over other types of facilities because they can operate in a flexible mode. This means they can continuously produce biogas but use it in the process of obtaining electrical energy in time periods when there is a shortage of electrical energy in the market. This is particularly significant during the winter season, and there is information that Serbia was then importing electrical energy at a price significantly higher than the feed-in tariffs provided for biogas facilities. This aspect is increasingly gaining importance as the capacity of installed wind and solar energy facilities increases, which can supply energy depending on natural circumstances and is not constant.

The future of anaerobic fermentation technology, i.e., technology for biogas production in Serbia, lies in the use of new types of raw materials/substrates, which include other agricultural substrates besides manure (straw), waste from the food industry (slaughterhouses), sewage sludge, which have been very underutilized thus far. This certainly requires the introduction of new procedures for processing and preparing raw materials, as well as innovative technology. Biogas needs to be viewed not only as a carrier of energy for further conversion into electrical energy but also for all other potential uses, such as biofuel for transportation (biomethane), fuel for obtaining thermal energy, and even raw material for the production of chemicals such as methanol. Currently, the market does not allow for such uses, but changes in demand will define new prices in the future. The future of biomass as a resource has significantly changed, allowing for the consideration of phasing out fossil resources from multiple sectors (transport, energy, chemical industry). According to current trends, the greatest perspective for biomass is to be used for advanced transport biofuels, produced by highly efficient technologies, which practically have a zero or even negative balance of greenhouse gas emissions and are cost-effective because they use waste streams. In this sense, manure from livestock production is the most interesting as a raw material because it has absolutely the best effect on decarbonization (reducing climate change). Regarding innovations being considered for the future, there is potential for advancements in biogas technology. These primarily include sustainable concepts of hybrid technologies, enabling the integration of green hydrogen used for the methanization of CO2 from biogas purification to biomethane, utilizing residual biomass after other processes of energy conversion (cascade) leading to more efficient carbon utilization in biomass as a resource, and similar. This would result in reduced raw material needs at biogas facilities, significantly reducing operational costs, and the environmental impact. A specific aspect is the use of advanced biofuels in fuel cells in the transportation sector, which has an absolute advantage over internal combustion engines as there are no exhaust gases containing pollutants (NOx, SOx, PM, CO) in their composition. Eventually, CO2 may be produced, which can be captured and reused as a raw material for obtaining biofuels. For now, none of these trends are applicable in Serbia, or in other countries, but they will be necessary in the future as they can be environmentally neutral and maximize the potential of raw materials. A broader perspective on viewing innovative technologies is that they must replace conventional technologies that predominantly use coal and emit pollutants primarily into the air. It is undeniable that this has consequences for human health, representing a financial cost and a loss of potential for any society, in this case, Serbia.

All challenges that are current in Serbia were also valid in Germany. The first difference between these two sectors is that the size (capacity) of the average biogas facility in Germany is smaller than that in Serbia. The reason is that in Germany, biogas facilities on family farms are supported, while in Serbia, these are primarily agricultural companies. Another difference is that the sector’s development in Germany began more than 20 years earlier. Therefore, in Serbia, a significantly smaller country, all changes have occurred over a considerably shorter period. Further development of the biogas sector needs to rely, besides existing support systems, on emissions trading, which can be a significant source of income. Biogas facilities in Germany, where the period of receiving subsidized prices for electrical energy has expired, have received a special status and, conditionally speaking, an extension of such a period, with a corrected (reduced) subsidized price compared to new facilities.