Paper and biomethane, an alliance for sustainability


At a time of high tensions on the raw materials and energy fronts, commitment to the concretization of a circular economy model is not only an indication of virtuous behaviour, but also a source of economic benefits and competitiveness. And the paper sector is an example of this

«A good promise» and «an encouraging premise for the future». With these words, Assocarta Director General Massimo Medugno began commenting on projects launched more or less recently and in agreement with other industry acronyms to promote the use of biomethane and biogas. The initiatives in question seem as timely as ever in the face of the impacts that the Russian-Ukrainian crisis (as we write this is now the 14th day of clashes) is causing on an already tense energy and commodities market. As of March 7, to give just one example, AGI Agenzia Italia was reporting the jump in the TTF index to 345 euros per megawatt hour, followed by a decline toward the nonetheless significant value of 260 euros. «Costs that are out of contro,» Medugno said, «are driving many operators out of business, and now more than ever, support for an alternative, circular energy Made in Italy is critical. We are counting on an adequate incentive system for biomethane, from which both our industry and farms can benefit. This is an important step toward the desired green transition and decarbonization; as well as toward diversification of sources, a central issue today». Valuing cogeneration means tout court giving back the right value to the territories, creating additional opportunities and giving them solidity, not to mention that for the products of the earth, «paper is often the preferred material for packaging,» and this is also a non-negligible aspect. The recent news highlighted the considerations elaborated by Prime Minister Mario Draghi on the need to focus on biogas and biomethane with a view to energy independence and diversification. Massimo Medugno recalled this, while pointing out that there are decree schemes and European Commission measures on the subject that leave no room for doubt and suggest that the time has now come to move from proposals to facts.

Energy intensive, but also virtuous

The Director General believes that «it is unthinkable to to aspire to a complete reconversion of supplies,» but instead it is rational and beneficial to think of biogas and biomethane as supporting tools for power generation for industrial and other purposes. He argued that «agricultural sludge and sewage are already successfully exploited. The use of municipal organic waste and sludge from public and consortium disposal plants can be hypothesized». A joint effort with other European Union countries, even with the prospect of creating a single market for alternative and green sources is Medugno’s further wish, and it is precisely to a pan-European strategy that his association has shown it is aiming with some recent agreements. The starting point is the awareness of the highly energy-intensive nature of the paper industry, which consumed about 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas in 2020. But it is also the awareness of its ability to operate under the banner of sustainability, as shown by the fact that 70 percent of its electricity needs were covered by cogeneration technologies. After the presentation of the EU Fit for 55 package, Assocarta joined other of its counterparts on the continent in the name of safeguarding high-efficiency cogeneration plants. That is, those that can guarantee a value of primary energy savings of 10 percent or more. As for the 55 to which the claim refers, the figure is an expression of the European goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent between now and 2030. As a member of Cepi – European Confederation of the Paper Industry – he addressed the 76 Italian parliamentarians in Strasbourg with a statement signed with CEFS EU Sugar, Cerame-Unie, EUROFER, COGEN Europe, FEDIOL, IFIEC Europe, Primary Food Processors, STARCHEUROPE.

Valuable solutions

The idea is that high-efficiency onsite cogeneration can ensure better greenhouse gas reduction results as we approach the end-of-decade milestone than separate production of electricity and heat, freeing up clean energy sources at a lower cost. Always according to the paper’s signatories, the solution is valuable and makes an important contribution to the European energy system as a whole and to industrial ecosystems. In terms of energy security, i.e., self-production and self-consumption of energy on site, energy system integration-the flexibility of the relative demand-and the circular use of energy within the site, as well as being an alternative to buying carbon-intensive energy from the grid. With regard to the paper industry-biomethane pair, the agreement signed last February between Assocarta and the Italian Biogas Consortium, CIB, is particularly interesting. According to Massimo Medugno, the agreement aims to «support the conversion of existing biogas plants to biomethane and the development of biomethane production initiatives from the agroindustrial supply chain». Furthermore, in its intent to boost «the decarbonization of energy-intensive production cycles, it is perfectly in line with the provisions of both the RED2 directive and the National Recovery and Resilience Plan». Based on said agreement, these aspects were highlighted by CIB Vice President Angelo Baronchelli. He stated that «Biomethane-producing farms stand alongside the paper supply chain to hit decarbonization targets, and the understanding with Assocarta will be an important driver for the realization of NRP measures. Biomethane is a great opportunity to meet environmental goals and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Only by joining forces can we help start a rapid, efficient and inclusive process of ecological transition for the country, preserving the competitiveness of companies».  

Opportunities at hand

As noted in part earlier, papermaking CHP plants could draw much-needed sustenance as much from self-produced biomethane and biogas as from those coming from, for example, agribusiness. Assocarta has reported estimates that eight billion cubic meters of biomethane could become available by 2030, about one-tenth of which could come from biodegradable waste. The problem lies in the current small amount of material usable by the industry. The association, through its initiatives and the agreements it has established, therefore wants to promote its increase, primarily with a view to the most efficient uses: among them, high-efficiency cogeneration. Industry players are investing in autonomous biogas production, waiting, however, for the legislative framework to take on clearer and more decisive contours, as noted by Massimo Medugno. Four pilot projects have been developed by paper mills to boost biogas production through anaerobic digestion technologies of wastewater or from sewage sludge. The planned budget is close to 15 million euros, but the game is certainly worth the candle since the poles in question would give a way to avoid the emission of 11 my 500 tons of Co2 into the atmosphere and drastically cut waste production (-10,000 tons). According to Assocarta, «paper mills are already the natural recipient of separate collections of paper and cardboard and could become users of biogas and biomethane partly self-produced, partly produced externally from the separate collections of biodegradable waste, using the gas network and existing cogeneration plants. Therefore, a plan for biogas and biomethane production that covers today’s higher costs than gas is essential, extending existing incentives for mobility to industrial-level use in sectors characterized by higher gas consumption, such as precisely the paper industry».

All the numbers of cogeneration

The Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) is at the heart of Europe’s energy and climate regulatory framework, and according to Assocarta and Cepi it has a whole range of good reasons to promote industry’s use of high-efficiency cogeneration. First, in order to ensure the reduction of emissions from the entire European energy system, where overly strict efficiency criteria-such as a direct CO2 emissions threshold below 270 grams per kilowatt hour-would severely penalize the Italian and European cogeneration fleet. Then, to promote the adoption and efficient use of renewable and low-carbon energy now and in the future; capturing the real energy-saving potential that industry can provide. Sixty gigawatts of high-efficiency combined heat and power (CHP) electrical capacity is now installed in some leading industries. Industrial self-generators co-generate 192.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, equivalent to the total electricity generated in the Netherlands and Belgium combined. In Europe, industrial CHP saves about 20 million tons of oil equivalent, equivalent to 5 percent of the 2020 energy efficiency target. It also leads to the the annual reduction of 40 million tons of CO2, which corresponds to the same emissions produced by 30 million gasoline cars.

At the forefront of circularity

Of the Italian circular economy, the paper sector is a leading player, as it puts renewable products into the market, using certified virgin fiber for 85 percent of the total; and is the second largest user of paper for recycling in Europe, given the 87 percent recycling rate typical of the packaging world.