Model shows how to make on-farm sustainable energy projects profitable

February 10, 2020

Researchers have developed a model that could boost investment in farm-based sustainable energy projects by allowing investors to more accurately predict whether a project will turn a profit. The model improves on earlier efforts by using advanced computational techniques to address uncertainty.

"Converting animal waste into electricity can be profitable for farmers while also producing environmental benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions," says Mahmoud Sharara, lead author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University. "However, farmers cannot always finance these projects, and projects aren't always a profitable enterprise for a single farm.

"One way to address this is to develop cooperative anaerobic digestion systems that make use of waste from multiple farms," Sharara says. "Two of the big questions surrounding this sort of project are: Where do you build the cooperative system? And how can you tell whether it will be profitable?"

To that end, the researchers developed a computational model that tells users how to maximize the economic return on anaerobic digestion systems. Specifically, it tells users where a system should be located, what its capacity should be and how large a geographic area it should serve.

The model accounts for a variety of known factors, such as which species a farm is raising, the size of each farm and where each farm is located. But what sets the model apart is the way it accounts for uncertainty.

For this work, the researchers identified 13 key sources of uncertainty that can affect the profitability of an anaerobic digester system.

For example, one way these systems make money is by converting animal waste into biogas, using that gas to produce electricity, and then selling the electricity. Therefore, one key variable in predicting the profitability of a system is the future sale price of electricity. And while the future price of electricity is uncertain, you can draw on historical data or market forecasts to estimate a price range.

The same is true for other sources of uncertainty. For instance, the efficiency of an anaerobic digester is uncertain, but you can predict that the digester's performance will fall within a certain range.

This is where the model comes in.

The researchers designed the model to run repeated simulations that account for variation in each area of uncertainty. For example, what does profitability look like when electricity prices and digester efficiency are both high? What if they're both low? And so on. By running all of these simulations for different site locations, capacities and service areas, the model can tell users which combination of factors would generate the most profit.

The research team demonstrated the model with case studies of anaerobic digester systems for dairy farms in two regions of Wisconsin.

"The case studies were a good sanity check for us, and highlighted the viability and utility of the model," Sharara says.

"Ultimately, we think this will spur investment in these projects, which will be good for both farmers and the environment."

The model is available now, and the researchers are interested in packaging it in a format that would be easier to use and distribute.

"We're also hoping to work more closely with anaerobic digester system developers to fine-tune our assessment of the costs related to these systems," Sharara says. "And, ultimately, we'd like to expand our work to account for efforts to use the solids left behind after anaerobic digestion - such as projects that convert these solids into marketable fertilizer."
The paper, "Planning methodology for anaerobic digestion systems on animal production facilities under uncertainty," was published in the journal Waste Management. The paper was co-authored by Maxwell Owusu-Twum, a visiting scholar at NC State; and Troy Runge and Rebecca Larson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The work was done with support from Dane County, Wisconsin.

North Carolina State University

Related Electricity Articles from Brightsurf:

Mirror-like photovoltaics get more electricity out of heat
New heat-harnessing 'solar' cells that reflect 99% of the energy they can't convert to electricity could help bring down the price of storing renewable energy as heat, as well as harvesting waste heat from exhaust pipes and chimneys.

Engineers use electricity to clean up toxic water
Powerful electrochemical process destroys water contaminants, such as pesticides. Wastewater is a significant environment issue.

Considering health when switching to cleaner electricity
Power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels emit not only planet-warming carbon dioxide, but also pollutants linked to breathing problems and premature death.

Windows will soon generate electricity, following solar cell breakthrough
Semi-transparent solar cells that can be incorporated into window glass are a 'game-changer' that could transform architecture, urban planning and electricity generation, Australian scientists say in a paper in Nano Energy.

Static electricity as strong as lightening can be saved in a battery
Prof. Dong Sung Kim and his joint research team presented a new technology that can increase the amount of power generated by a triboelectric nanogenerator.

To make amino acids, just add electricity
By finding the right combination of abundantly available starting materials and catalyst, Kyushu University researchers were able to synthesize amino acids with high efficiency through a reaction driven by electricity.

Using renewable electricity for industrial hydrogenation reactions
The University of Pittsburgh's James McKone's research on using renewable electricity for industrial hydrogenation reactions is featured in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A's Emerging Investigators special issue.

Water + air + electricity = hydrogen peroxide
A reactor developed by Rice University engineers produces pure hydrogen peroxide solutions from water, air and energy.

Producing electricity at estuaries using light and osmosis
Researchers at EPFL are working on a technology to exploit osmotic energy -- a source of power that's naturally available at estuaries, where fresh water comes into contact with seawater.

Experimental device generates electricity from the coldness of the universe
A drawback of solar panels is that they require sunlight to generate electricity.

Read More: Electricity News and Electricity Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to