The burning question

Gas flaring, landfill, and wasted energy opportunities. By Volker Schulte

As those of us working in the industry know all too well, the energy sector has and is undergoing fundamental changes. Driven by overarching demographic change, a push towards decarbonisation, and an increasingly decentralised system, what were once considered immutable characteristics of the sector have evolved rapidly in a fairly short space of time.

Yet despite the strides the industry has taken to adapt to shifting dynamics, one important issue remains largely sidelined. Despite the valiant efforts of organisations like the UN and the World Bank in particular, the issue of waste gas, created primarily via associated petroleum gas or landfill, remains largely unresolved – a stubborn reminder of old practices in an otherwise rapidly transforming sector.

To understand the extent of the problem, you first need to look at the numbers. Though some reports have suggested a slight downturn in recent years, an estimated 140 billion cubic metres of gas is still wasted through flaring each year worldwide. In monetary terms, this is the equivalent of an eye-watering $20 billion, but the cost of wasted gas goes beyond just the financial, flaring adds as much CO2 to the atmosphere every year as 200 million cars.

Furthermore, it’s now estimated that global landfilling of 1.5 billion tonnes annually produces 75 billion cubic metres of wasted methane, this equates to a further 423 million cars worth equivalent of harmful emission into our atmosphere every year.

However, though the environmental and financial impact cannot be underestimated, arguably some of the worst damage lies in the waste of a valuable resource that could otherwise be put to significantly better use.

Let’s take flaring as an example. Should the current level of global flaring gas be used for power generation, it could provide more electricity than Africa’s current annual consumption. Considering that in Africa, 60 per cent of the population does not currently have access to electricity, the fact that so much potential power is going to waste is difficult to reconcile.

Above all, given the cost of fuel for power generation via flare gas is effectively zero, there are huge cost savings to be made.

But despite the complexities surrounding this problem, there are – thankfully – a number of tried and tested solutions. Whether its power generation, or gas-reinjection to increase oilfield production, or pipeline development to transport the gas to be sold or used elsewhere, there are several ways to turn this wasted gas into something of tangible use.

Of course, some of these options are easier to implement than others. Pipeline development, for example, is a relatively fool proof way to build infrastructure to evacuate the gas, but it requires many government permits, a great deal of time, landowners’ permission as well as, often, significant CAPEX. On the other hand, something like power generation with ‘gas to wire’ technology, offers a more economically viable solution, producing electricity that is sold back to the grid or used at the wellhead. Depending on the quality of the gas being produced and its water content, there is limited processing required to make the natural gas ready for use and it could also cover, and typically produce more, electricity than is required to operate artificial lift systems, booster pumps, rigs and other well site equipment.

But notwithstanding the various advantages and disadvantages of each of these methods, it’s safe to say that many of them have been implemented to great effect – often in countries which have historically had waste gas surpluses and electricity shortages.

Take Nigeria, for example. Once the second largest flarer in the world, up there with other large flaring countries including Russia, the US, and Iraq, Nigeria now sits at number seven in the tables. By committing to a project of gas gathering and building almost 600km of new gas pipelines to connect power plants to gas supply pipelines, Nigeria has reduced its flaring from 25 per cent to ten per cent. The country’s latest ambition to reduce flaring levels to zero has been well documented, and given the success in recent years, could soon be a reality. In a similar vein, though it remains the world’s largest gas flaring country, Russia also saw the largest decline in flaring last year, using flared gas to generate electricity or monetising it through the pipeline network. Besides, the country is levying heavy fines on flaring less than 95 per cent of the associated petroleum gas.

When it comes to the issue of landfill gas, arguably there’s an even easier solution available to us. Several countries and organisations are increasingly turning to biogas plants, which work by turning waste into an anaerobic digester, to produce gas. The Dutch government, for example, is set to commit $2.5m into Kenya to launch a biogas grant programme to develop 8000 domestic plants in rural areas. The objective is to reduce household reliance on forestry resources and kerosene for cooking and lighting purposes.

Similarly, some developed countries are doing particularly well in collecting methane from landfill installations to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and to manage the air pollution. In European countries in particular, the installations are collecting methane, supported by EU regulation and local feed-in tariff. These examples all demonstrate a clear blueprint for success, if the effort and budget is there among companies, governments, and stakeholders alike. This requires a collective sense of responsibility to the planet from companies such as Aggreko, as businesses can’t always rely upon government action to encourage sustainable practices.

Fundamentally, addressing the issue of waste gas has the potential to create real transformative change in the world – not just environmentally, but also by addressing critical energy shortfalls in certain regions. With greater global attention and a concerted effort to use the technologies that are already available, large-scale gas flaring and wasteful landfill sites could finally be something we can confine to the past as we move into a new energy future.

Volker Schulte is Group Manufacturing and Technology Director, Aggreko. Aggreko is a world-leading provider of mobile modular power, temperature control and energy services. It is working at the forefront of a rapidly changing energy market and is focused on solving its customers’ challenges to provide cost-effective, flexible and greener solutions across the globe.