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AFBI Northern Ireland: Benefits and

supply chain of AD systems


In Northern Ireland there is 777 000 ha of grassland (93% of total farmland, excluding hill and rough
pasture). 10 Million tonnes of manure is potentially available which is equivalent to approximately
37 MW of continuous electricity

(4% of requirement). Northern Ireland had 134 planning applications of AD in 2013. Of those
applications 86 have been approved and around 10 are operational. The biggest driver for the
development has been government policy on renewable energy. When comparing to forestry,
Northern Ireland has 86,000 ha of forested land (6%) therefore the AD from Agricultural residues is
playing a crucial role in Northern Ireland.

Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute is a leading provider of scientific research and services to
government, non-governmental and commercial organizations. Their focus in the field of Anaerobic
digestion has been in performance of on-farm AD using dairy cow slurry, research methods for
improving performance, research post AD treatments of digestate, determining the value of
digestate as a biofertiliser and determining the lifecycle benefits of AD.

AFBI has 300 dairy cattle, one single stage mesophilic system and range of feedstock e.g. silages.
They have future plans to expand with a second stage digester and additional pre-treatment
systems. AFBI also own Renewable Energy Centre who have their own biomass plantation (willow),
PV panels, Biogas and CHP boiler, district heating and gas transfer facilities. It is estimated that
approximately 50% of the energy usage at the AFBI, Hillsborough site will be derived from renewable
energy within the future.

At AFBI Hillsborough there are 120 employees, 60 of which are scientists who are working in 7
different sectors.

This case study is focused on describing the AD system in Hillsborough and how biomass has the
potential to be used as a source of energy and bring value for the farmers and the region itself.
Raw material

Primary raw material at AFBI is dairy cattle slurry but they have tested to have a mixture of silage in
the same reaction in order to increase the value of digestate. AFBI have 300 dairy cattle. The total
land area is 700-800 acres which is similar in size to 6/7 small farms. 300 cattle produce 20 tonnes of
slurry which is around 250 -300 kWh energy. AFBI can produce their own silage and the average
price of silage is around 25 pounds/tonne.

The average farm size in Northern Ireland is around 40 hectares and the average number of dairy
cattle on a farm is around 77.

When producing energy using AD systems it is important to know the factors behind the process
(from AFBI website:

1. Biogas contains 55-80% methane, the higher the proportion is the higher the calorific value.
The quantity of biogas produced per unit volume of feedstock and per unit volume of
digester determines digester performance and economic viability. It is not economic to
store large quantities of biogas and as a consequence, it is usual to utilise biogas as it is
2. The heat required to maintain digester temperature depends upon climate, digester type,
insulation and digester design. This requirement can be more than 50% of the energy
available from the biogas produced. Mesophilic digesters require less heat input than
thermophilic digesters. Since water does not produce biogas, heating water is an
unproductive energy demand. Farm slurries are usually low in dry matter (2-10%); therefore
on-farm AD is normally mesophilic.
3. The longer the hydraulic retention time (HRT) of the feedstock in the digester the greater
the biogas yield per unit of feedstock. For a given feedstock loading rate, a longer HRT will
correspond with a bigger digester and hence greater capital cost. In practice there is an
optimum HRT that is a compromise between gas production and digester volume.
4. For pumping and mixing, feedstocks below 10% DM are required, with 8% considered as
optimum for mesophilic digestion. Due to dilution from yard water and washings, many
types of slurry on farms are often only 3-4% DM. Generally the higher the dry matter the
higher the gas production per unit of slurry and the smaller the digester needs to be for a
given number of animals.
5. Chemicals that kill bacteria will inhibit anaerobic digestion. It is recommended to keep them
out of the feedstock, e.g. disinfectants.
6. The EU Animal By-Products Regulation and the Animal By-Products Regulations (Northern
Ireland) 2003 divide organic material into three different categories. These regulations must
be complied with, particularly AD plants that treat combinations of categories. You can find
more information of the legislation from here:

In volume terms, on-farm anaerobic digestion (AD) in Northern Ireland has the greatest potential for
cattle and pig farms. There are differences between different animals slurry Table 1.

Table 1. Biogas production and biogas energy values for cattle and pig slurries (source:

Typical agriculturally based centralised AD (CAD) plants use farm products (livestock manures and
crops) as the main feedstocks, as well as other organic material from, for example, food processing.
Co-digestion can provide an additional source of income through gate fees and can improve the yield
of biogas per unit of feedstock input. CAD plants can be thermophilic or mesophilic. Compared to
typical on-farm plants, CAD plants are larger (0.1-1.0 MWelectricity), give economies of scale and offer
better market opportunities for heat (for local industry and/or district heating) and fibre production.
CAD schemes can involve a number of farms within a radius of about 10 km from the plant. All
agriculturally based CAD schemes distribute digestate back to agricultural land, normally that of the
supplying farms. Raw slurry and digestate are rich in plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and
potassium). Digestate must be applied to agricultural land in accordance with crop requirements for
plant nutrients. Nutrient management is a major issue for consideration when determining the
feasibility of any AD scheme. CAD schemes have major potential to assist in managing and
redistributing plant nutrients in slurry. When redistributing digestate to farms it is very important to
ensure biosecurity. All CAD schemes should include sterilisation of material prior to redistribution.


The supply chain of AFBI energy production is pretty straight forward. The slurry is collected from
the dairy cattle, this is done by pumping the slurry into a slurry tank and then hauling the material to
the slurry reception tank, there is no separation of solid and liquid material at this stage. From
reception tank slurry is moved to one silo where it is later on fed to the digester. (Figure 1).

Figure 1. AFBI AD unit in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland

Solid material has its own separate feeding system. Filling the digester is really important and to
make it efficient it should be executed as quickly as possible and the temperature should be as low
as possible (Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Effect of temperature and storage time for the biogas production (m3/tonne)

AFBI has single stage mesophilic AD system. The biogas that is produced in AD unit is transported to
the CHP boiler via pipe (Figure 3.).

Figure 3. Biogas from AD unit is transported to the CHP boiler via pipe. AFBI has built its own district
heating network.
In AD processes there are two different products: biogas and digestate. Digestate can be used as
fertiliser and biogas can be used in CHP boiler but also as a fuel in vehicles. The quantity of biogas
and energy produced depends on type of feedstock, temperature of the digester, the hydraulic
retention time (HRT) of feedstock in the digester and combustion unit. In temperate climates
heating of the digester is normally required. Rough value chain can be estimated for the AD process
(Figure 4).

Figure 4. Estimated value chain of AD process when using one tonne dairy cow slurry. Prices are
estimations and are not including ROCs which can increase the total value over 13,20 .

AFBI is researching co-digestion of grass silage with cattle slurry, both at lab-scale and farm-scale.
Their results to date indicate that the yield of biogas/methane is in direct proportion to the
quantities of each feedstock used. There does not seem to be any synergy between the ratio of
slurry and silage fed. AFBI has found that the amount of methane produced per tonne of grass silage
fed is unaffected by the feedstock ratio (slurry: grass silage).

In order to maximise efficiency of the AD system it is important that the quantity of biogas produced
should equal demand. It should be remembered that while slurry only produces about 10% of the
volume of biogas produced by grass silage per tonne, fresh slurry contains the bacteria that produce
methane, the nutrients required by those bacteria aids a stable fermentation process. Grass silage
presents challenges for AD, both in getting the material into the digester and in keeping the digester
contents mixed but is good way to produce methane energy.

Slurry can be also used as a fertilizer but when using digestate, it can have higher nutrient values and
its value/tonne will increase (Table 3.).
Table 3. Digestate c.f. Slurry per harvest: assuming 18% increase in available N

Spreading the slurry and digestate to the field for increasing the grass growth can be done in several
ways. Splash plate is the conventional method for spreading slurry. It completely covers the whole
field. Trailing-shoe deposits slurry in narrow bands on top of the soil. Trailling shoe results in 26%
more yield than splash plate. Work at AFBI to determine if results hold good for digestate when
using trailing-shoe, emissions to air and smell can be reduced. (Figure 5.)

Figure 5. Two different ways to fertilise grass using slurry or digestate.

In Northern Ireland most slurry is land spread by the splash plate method. This method of
application can result in up to 80% of the available Nitrogen (N) applied in the slurry being lost to the
atmosphere in the form of ammonia. Not only does this result in a loss of this valuable nutrient but it
also causes atmospheric pollution.

Savings in Chemical fertiliser costs from using trailing-shoe slurry application systems.

Slurry Application System Splash Plate Trailing- Shoe

Slurry volume m3/ha (gallons/acre 50 (4500) 50 (4500)
Available N from Slurry (kg N/ha) 30 57
N from Bagged Fertiliser (kg N/ha) 70 43
Total N Available (kg N/ha) 100 100
Savings in fertiliser cost (/ha) - 16 (6.50/acre)
Combustion/ Conversion

There are two main types of AD system (AFBI website:


1. Mesophilic: The digester is heated to 25-35 Celsius degree. Hydraulic retention time of
feedstock is typically 15-30 days. Most on-farm biogas plants are mesophilic.
2. Thermophilic: The digester is heated to 49-60 Celsius degree. Hydraulic retention time of
feedstock is typically 12-14 days.

Compared with mesophilic digestion, thermophilic digestion produces more biogas per unit time,
requires smaller digestion tanks for a given volume of feedstock and gives better pathogen kill.
However, thermophilic digestion is less robust and less tolerant than mesophilic digestion, requires
more expensive technology, greater energy input and a higher degree of operation and monitoring.
Farm slurries are usually low in dry matter (2-10%); therefore on-farm AD is normally mesophilic.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD) converts 30-60% of the digestible solids in the feedstock into biogas by
bacterial fermentation. The biogas is then burned to generate renewable energy. When used for
heat only, the biogas is burned in a modified gas boiler to provide heat energy to heat the digester
and for export. Alternatively, the biogas can be used to fuel engines of vehicles and other machinery.
When biogas is used as a fuel for a combined heat and power (CHP) unit, electricity and heat are
produced. The heat from the CHP unit can be used to maintain digester temperature and supply
heat energy for export. AD plants can include mechanical separation of fibrous solids from the
digestate that, after further processing, can give a value added product, such as compost or pellets
(fertiliser or combustible fuel)

AFBI has made 2,5 million pound installation which including 1,6 km district heating network. AFBI
has several different boilers including biogas boiler and CHP units (Figure 6.). They have also heavy
fuel oil based backup system.

Figure 6. On the left side bigger 100 kW CHP unit, middle 90 kW Biogas boiler and on the right side
smaller 23 kW CHP unit.

When using AD, AFBI needs to pay waste management charge which is

1,134 to apply
1,583/y subsistence charge

Other routine and maintenance cost are:

Feedstock pump lobes changed @ 1,000h

Macerator oil seals and plate changed at 2,000h
Rotary valve primary gas mixer replaced @ 11,500h
Surplus gas burner 4m3/d usually 0
CHP maintenance costs vary


Planning permission is essential for all anaerobic digestion in Northern Ireland and falls under
Northern Ireland planning policy, PPS 18. Renewable Energy.

Grid Connection

All electricity generators connecting to the Grid must meet certain standards and there are costs
associated with Grid connection.
In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) Transport and Distribution Group are
responsible for assessing the feasibility of connecting an AD plant to the grid and the associated
costs. An initial feasibility study can be carried out, and then following a successful planning
application, a grid study will assess the appropriate connection requirements and the fee involved.

If upgrades to the local network are involved, this may require NIE to obtain planning permission
which may add a time delay to the process.


Regulations Covering Anaerobic Digestion

All anaerobic digester operators in Northern Ireland must comply with regulations concerning
environmental protection, animal by-products, duty of care, health and safety, waste handling and
planning permission.
Standard Permits for AD
The Environment Agency have produced a standard rule set allowing an operator to operate an
anaerobic digester of wastes and also use the biogas in compression and spark ignition engines, with
an aggregated input of up to 3MW (thermal).
In Northern Ireland
On 8 April 2011 new regulations introduced a two-tier registration system for waste carriers. If your
carrier only transports animal by-products they should now be registered as a lower tier waste
carrier. If the carrier transports other types of waste, as well as animal by-products, they must be
registered as an upper tier waste carrier with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). You
should ask for proof - such as a certificate or letter of registration - that an individual or business is
authorised to handle or transport your waste.

How do you apply to use animal by-products in an AD plant?

Within Northern Ireland if you want to use animal by-products or catering waste in your anaerobic
digester you must apply for approval from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development


Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation and accreditation for Renewables Obligation

Levy Exemption Certificates
Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation

Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation

The Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO) is the main support scheme for renewable
electricity projects in the NI. A Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) is a green certificate issued
to an accredited generator for eligible renewable electricity generated within Northern Ireland and
supplied to customers within Northern Ireland by a licensed electricity supplier.
Anaerobic digestion is among the technologies that receive additional support in the form of
multiple ROCs. The current ROCs available for AD are as follows:

Facilities with a capacity less than or equal to 500kWe are entitled to 4 ROCs per MWh of
electricity generated.
Facilities with a capacity of between 500kWe and 5MWe are entitled to 3 ROCs per MWh of
electricity generated.
Facilities with a capacity greater than 5MWe are entitled to 2 ROCs per MWh of electricity
From April 2016 the banding levels for anaerobic digestion above 5MWe will be reduced to 1.9 ROCs
per MWh and from April 2017 this will be reduced further to 1.8 ROCs per MWh. For more
information please visit the DETINI website.
To get accreditation for the NIRO by OFGEM, an AD plant needs to pass OFGEM's test of
reasonableness and use an approved electricity meter. All information including application forms
and guidance notes can be found on the OFGEM website.
Levy Exemption Certificates
Combined heat and power (CHP) generated from eligible renewable resources is exempt from the
Climate Change Levy (CCL). CHP Levy Exemption Certificates (LECs) are the primary evidence that
suppliers use to demonstrate to HM Revenue & Customs the amount of electricity supplied from
certified 'Good Quality' CHP sources to non-domestic customers in the UK. For more information on
CCL CHP exemption, see the relevant pages of OFGEM's website. For information on getting
certification for quality CHP, see the CHP Quality Assurance programme.

Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation

The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) requires suppliers of fossil fuels to ensure that a
specified percentage of the road fuels they supply in the UK are made up of renewable fuels.
Biomethane is eligible for Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates provided that it is dutiable and
produced wholly from biomass. The guaranteed buy-out + duty incentive was 30p in 2012/13.
More information can be found from the Department for Transport, who administers the RTFO.


Securing financial support for an anaerobic digestion can be challenging. Private finance is available
but owing to the significant capital expenditure associated with bioenergy facilities and the risks
involved, such funding can be difficult to obtain. To bridge this gap the Government is providing
targeted financial support to the bioenergy sector.

Green Investment Bank (GIB)

The Green Investment Bank was set up by the UK Government as a public company in October 2012.
The Bank has 3 billion to invest in sustainable projects, where public capital is used to support
private investment.
Bioenergy is not a mandated priority sector for the Bank and is therefore limited to the Banks 20 per
cent allocation to non-priority sectors. However, Energy from Waste is a priority area and this has
already seen investment in a number of projects, such as the TEG Groups anaerobic digestion
facility in East London. To discuss investment opportunities contact the Green Investment Bank
waste team.

Enterprise Finance Guarantee (EFG)

The Enterprise Finance Guarantee (EFG) is a targeted measure intended to facilitate additional
commercial lending to viable SMEs unable to obtain a normal commercial loan due to having no or
insufficient security. Only available through accredited EFG lenders, detailed on the Department for
Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) website. EFG will continue until 31 March 2015, enabling up to
600 million of additional lending in 2011-12, and over 2 billion in total up to 31 March 2015,
subject to demand.

Capital Grant Aid

Capital grant schemes are available (but are not vital) to support AD plant construction. In Northern
Ireland, funding for AD projects is available through the Department of Agriculture and Rural
Development for Northern Ireland's (DARDNI) Biomass Processing Challenge Fund. The conditions
for receiving funding through the Biomass Processing Challenge Fund are available at the DARDNI

Other Grant Aid and Support

WRAP provides funding on occasion, including capital grants. WRAP's Organics Funding
Guide provides information on support for bio-energy and food waste processing projects.

Enhanced Capital Allowance

The Enhanced Capital Allowance Energy scheme provides businesses with enhanced tax relief for
investments in equipment that meets published energy-saving criteria. With CHP, case by case
Certification is needed to ensure support is provided for good quality CHP. Certification is achieved
using the CHP Quality Assurance programme (CHPQA). Renewables East produced a simple guide to
CHPQA and ECA for biomass projects.

Private Equity finance may also be an option.


Benefits of AD system (source AFBI website:


1. Methane - released to the atmosphere during normal storage and utilisation of farm
slurries. Methane is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2).
Anaerobic digestion (AD) collects methane and provides a source of renewable energy that
is carbon neutral i.e. provides energy with no net increase in atmospheric CO2.
2. Fertiliser - compared to undigested slurry, the nitrogen in digestate is more readily available
as a plant nutrient.
3. Smell - AD can lower the odour from farm slurries by up to 80%.
4. Pollution - AD can lower the biological oxygen demand, (BOD - a measure of the polluting
strength of a material) in the feedstock to less than 40% of that in the digestate. However,
BOD of digestate is still extremely high relative to the discharge standards for wastewaters.
5. Pathogens - pathogens in the feedstock, such as salmonella, are lowered by AD.
6. Weed seeds - AD kills many weed seeds and hence there is less need for herbicides.
7. Plant nutrients - management of plant nutrients is aided by mechanical separation of the
digestate. Plant nutrients in the fibre fraction can be exported off farm as a soil conditioner,
or further processed into granular organic fertiliser or combustible fuel.
8. Handling - compared to raw slurry, digestate flows easier and requires less mixing before
9. Grazing - cattle can reject grass spread with untreated slurry; they do not readily reject grass
spread with digestate.

Biogas gives direct financial returns when used to generate electricity (table 4.) Including the value
for renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) further increases these returns. Use of a combined heat
and power (CHP) unit to produce electricity and hot water is of further benefit, provided the heat
produced can be utilised fully to heat the digester and for export. Biogas can also be used in
modified gas boilers to produce hot water for use on site, or for export. In addition, biogas can be
scrubbed of impurities and fed into a natural gas grid, or used as a fuel for cars, buses and trains.
Table 4. According to the studies of AFBI value of 1 tonne silage (25% dry matter)

Heat 50p/l oil,

Electricity 13p/kWh,

Heat 50p/l oil,

Electricity Heat 50p/l oil
4.5p/kWh, 16.05
ROCs (4x4.5p/kWh),
Electricity 13p/kWh,
35.57 ROCs
Milk sales, Milk
sales, 70.00 (4x4.5p/kWh)
ROCs (4x4.5p/kWh),
4.5p/kWh, 35.57 Electricity
Silage cost, Silage
cost, 35.00 Electricity,
Electricity 13p/kWh,
Electricity, 24.99
4.5p/kWh, 8.65

There are still many challenges on farm-scale AD systems. Therefore wide scale adoption of on-farm
AD within Northern Ireland cannot yet be recommended but farmers co-operation to build shared
centralised AD plant is strongly recommend.

Presentation of AFBI AD research, given by Stephen Gilkinson. 23.11.2013

The Official Information Portal on Anaerobic Digestion

AFBI website