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Anaerobic digesters (ADs) have been promoted as an environmentally friendly and inexpensive way of producing gas to heat and light homes, generate electricity for the power grid, dispose of farm and municipal organic waste, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the Daily Mail reports, however, the cost of the energy produced by ADs is far higher than energy generated by traditional fossil fuels, and ADs create their own environmental problems.
A UK government report found the government has provided more than £216 million in subsidies to build and operate ADs, making the energy they produce more than three times as expensive as from conventional sources. Part of the problem is ADs were supposed to operate on farm waste, primarily manure, generated on-site or nearby, but there is not enough farm waste to operate them, meaning ADs are increasingly relying on crops specifically grown for use in the digesters – said crops most often being grown miles away from where the ADs are located. A UK Government March 2016 “impact assessment” found “agricultural crops are … not a cost effective means of biomethane production.”
In addition, ADs are creating their own waste problems. Eighty-five percent of the material used in ADs to create biogas remains after use. For example, keeping the Sparsholt AD plant operating requires shipping 60,000 tons of crops to the plant annually, leaving 50,400 tons of leftover material to be shipped out each year.
In addition, toxic spills from ADs are becoming increasingly common. “According to the Environment Agency, ADs caused 12 ‘serious pollution incidents’ in 2015 – a rise of more than 50 per cent on the previous year.” According to the Daily Mail, one massive chemical spill from an AD made toxic a stream running through farms in West Sussex. One farmer had 70 acres of his land contaminated. “In the following days, 28 of [the farmer’s] pregnant ewes perished, along with 35 lambs, and the fish and other wildlife in the stream for a distance of several miles. The Environment Agency warned that children and animals should stay well away from the polluted water.”