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Monitoring of methane
emissions from biogas plants
by Torsten Reinelt, Tina Clau and Jan Liebetrau

Profound knowledge about the greenhouse gas emissions from biogas plants and the subsequent development
of emission mitigation strategies are a major key point for the acceptance of the biogas technology. Neverthe-
less, not only ecological, but also for economic and safety issues, a reliable emission source detection and the
determination of the emission rate is very important. The article reviews the variety of different methane emis-
sion sources on a biogas plant and the methods to determine the emission rate from these sources. That allows
the deduction of different mitigation strategies.

1. INTRODUCTION Due to the construction and the process technology of

the mostly agricultural biogas plants in Germany, only a
With the launch of the Renewable Energy Law, the use of low number of stationary sources like the off-gas from
renewable energy including biogas gained importance the combined heat and power (CHP) plant are available
during the last 17 years in Germany, which led to an ele- for a standardized emission monitoring 0, 0. To date, there
vating number of operated biogas plants. However, the is consequently no effective methane emission control of
biogas sector is increasingly confronted with different biogas plants. Most German regulations refer to safety of
challenges, e.g., the continuing discussion about the use the biogas producing plants, and not to a limitation of
of energy crops (dinner plate or fuel tank), higher pro- the emissions. One exception is, e.g. the German TA-Luft
duction costs in comparison to other renewable energies (Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control) which will
(e.g. solar energy, wind onshore), but also their contribu- be revised in the near future.
tion to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since methane Besides few stationary sources, several unknown fugi-
is the main component of biogas, the avoidance of meth- tive methane emission sources can exist (e.g. biogas leak-
ane emissions in the operation of biogas plants is very ages) or an emission source emits only temporarily (e.g.
important. operational emissions from pressure relief valves of the
In particular, methane emissions became a very biogas storages). Depending on the purpose of monitor-
important issue within the biogas sector in the last ten ing, several approaches for leakage detection and meth-
years, because of its great influence on different levels for ane emission quantification are available. For plant safety
the biogas technology. Methane emissions can affect: checks, leakage detection by usage of portable methane
the plant safety, because methane forms an explosive detectors measuring the methane concentration at
mixture with air (4.4 vol.% methane and 16.5 vol.% biogas-bearing plant components is sufficient. In con-
oxygen) 0 trast, the ecological evaluation of biogas plants including
the ecology of the technology, because methane is a the calculation of greenhouse gas balances requires the
potent greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Poten- overall methane emission rate of the whole biogas plant
tial of 28 0 (from substrate storage to the biogas utilization). Public
the economy of the technology, because methane authorities require reliable methane emission factors and
losses cannot be combusted and consequently standardized measurement methods to monitor the
decrease the revenues of the operator. plants. Possible measurement approaches and exem-
plary results are described in the following.
The mitigation of (fugitive) methane emissions from
biogas plants requires a sufficient emission monitoring.

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2. MEASUREMENT APPROACHES Quantification of methane emissions from leakages:

The commonly used quantification methods for leakages
For the determination of methane emissions from biogas are dynamic chambers and the similar High Volume Sam-
plants, different measurement approaches including on- pling systems, respectively 0, 0. The dynamic chamber
site and remote sensing methods have been developed (foil or fixed hood) encapsulates the leakage and is aer-
in the recent years. The different methods will be intro- ated by fresh air provided by a blower. The encapsulation
duced in the following subsections. avoids an uncontrolled emission in the atmosphere and
converts the fugitive source into a conducted source. In
2.1 On-site approach the off-gas pipe of the dynamic chamber, the volume
flow and the methane concentration are analyzed like in
The basic principle of the on-site approach needs two a conducted source. Afterwards, the emission mass flow
main steps. The first one is a survey of the plant to iden- from the investigated leakage is calculated 0.
tify all existing emission sources, both the unknown and
known sources. The unknown emission sources are usu- Quantification of methane emissions from open
ally leakages on biogas-bearing plant components. The digestate storage tanks:
leakage identification can be carried out by means of an For analysis of open digestate storage tanks, static cham-
infrared camera and hand held methane detectors. bers are usually used. The basic principle of the method is
Known sources, which are nevertheless hard to quantify, the encapsulation of a certain part of the digestate sur-
can be open digestate storage tanks (area source) or face (<1m2) by setting the chamber onto the surface. By
pressure relief valves (time-variant emission characteris- determining a surface specific emission rate (e.g. in g CH4
tic). For each identified emission source, a suitable m-2 h-1), the overall emission from the whole storage tank
method for the quantification of the emission rate has to is extrapolated to the whole digestate surface area. In
be applied 0. Depending on the source type, the quanti- contrast to dynamic chambers, fresh air or another carrier
fication method differs. Thus, three exemplary methods gas does not pass the static chamber, so the gas concen-
are described more precisely: tration inside the chamber is increasing over time. This

Figure 1: Moni-
toring of oper-
ational meth-
ane emissions
from pressure
relief valves
(PRV) at a full
scale biogas

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increase of the gas concentration over time is propor- There are three different remote sensing methods to
tional to the emission rate 0, 0. determine the overall methane emission rate of a biogas
plants. Using the first method, the average methane con-
Quantification of operational methane emissions centration over an open path (upwind and downwind of
from pressure relief valves: the biogas plant) is determined with an optical spec-
Pressure relief valves are safety units, which protect the trometer, using, e.g. tunable diode absorption or Fourier
biogas storages from unbalanced pressure conditions by transform infrared spectroscopy. Together with meteoro-
the release of raw biogas (overpressure) or the suction of logical data, the emissions from the source area can be
fresh air (underpressure). Due to the very time-variant determined computationally by dispersion modelling
emission characteristic, operational methane emissions methods, e. g. Gaussian plume model or backward
from pressure relief valves have to be continuously moni- Lagrangian stochastic model. Examples for this measure-
tored by means of explosion proof sensors in long-term ment approach can be found in [9-11]. Especially for this
investigations 0. For the release of raw biogas at overpres- remote sensing approach, the surrounding area of the
sure conditions, the pressure relief valve usually has an plant and suitable wind conditions, i.e., absence of other
exhaust pipe where the monitoring equipment measur- unknown emission sources, a good accessibility in the
ing flow velocity or temperature can be installed [8]. With downwind area, preferably flat terrain and a wind velocity
the flow velocity, the emitted methane volume flow and of at least 3 ms-1, are prerequisites for a successful reliable
the duration of single triggering events is monitored. A methane emission quantification.
temperature sensor only registers the frequency and the The Tracer Dispersion Method (TDM) uses a con-
duration of the single triggering events, since the increas- trolled release of a specific tracer gas (frequently acety-
ing and decreasing temperature inside the exhaust pipe lene) from the source area and concentration measure-
indicate the beginning and ending of an event, respec- ments of the tracer and methane downwind of the
tively. Figure 1 shows a continuous monitoring of pres- biogas plant. The method assumes that the released
sure relief valves at a full-scale biogas plant. tracer gas disperses into the atmosphere likewise the
After quantification of the single emission sources emitted methane from the plant. The concentration of
with the on-site methods, the overall methane emission these two gases can be measured statically, e.g. on an
rate from the biogas plant is calculated by summing up open path in downwind direction of the biogas plant, or
the single components 0, 0. dynamically by driving on the streets around the biogas
plant while measuring the concentration of the tracer
2.2 Remote sensing approach and the methane, e.g. with very sensitive cavity ring-
down sensors [12].
With remote sensing approaches, the overall methane A third method is the use of Differential Absorption
emission of a biogas plant can be determined by measur- Lidar (DIAL), which so far was rarely used for the investiga-
ing in a proper distance from the source area. With these tion of biogas plants, due to the high instrument and
methods, a monitoring of the methane emissions from the operational costs. With a DIAL system, the range-resolved
whole plant over a certain period (usually some hours) is gas concentration of different target gases can be deter-
possible. Thus, also time variant sources or emissions occur- mined along an open path. A helicopter-based version
ring at certain operational modes can be recorded. Never- was already used on a German biogas plant 0. A ground-
theless, the usage of remote sensing methods requires a based version have been recently used for method com-
well accessible area surrounding the biogas plant. parison measurements at a biogas plant within the cur-

Table 1: Dis-/advantages of onsite and remote sensing approach

Onsite approach Remote sensing approach

I dentification and quantification of single sources Longtime measurements with high resolution possible

D  irect mitigation strategies can be deduced No influence on plant operation

L ow detection limit (single source and total emission rate) Time effort quite independent from plant size
Independent from weather conditions All emissions sources are recorded
E ffort adjustable to the requirements Time variant emissions are detectable during long term measurements
T ime variant emission sources are difficult to identify No identification of single sources possible

U  nknown and diffuse sources are not included Highly dependent on wind conditions and topology around the plant
H  igh effort on large plants with many digesters Influence of the uncertainties of dispersion models and/or atmospheric
I nfluence of measurement on emissions (e.g. chamber mixing
methods) Difficulties of separation of other sources nearby (e.g. barns)

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rent European research project MetHarmo (European point sources 55%; not every leakage was detected by
harmonization of methods to quantify methane emis- each team). However, the more important fact was that
sions from biogas plants, funded by ERA-NET and in Ger- both main sources (open digestate storage and pressure
many represented by the Agency for Renewable relief valve of the compressor station) could not be meas-
Resources FNR, support code: 22403215). By vertical ured from all on-site teams, because of missing equip-
scanning in the downwind area of the biogas plant, emis- ment (digestate storage) or changes of the plant opera-
sion plumes can be mapped and emission rates can be tion (emitting PRV was fixed by the operator). The results
calculated. of the remote-sensing approach ranges from 0.6 to 3.0%
methane loss (cp. Table 1) and the individual results of
2.3 Dis-/advantages of both approaches the two remote sensing teams also varied strongly
(IDMM: 0.6 1.7%methane loss, TDM 2.2 3.0%meth-
Both approaches, the on-site and the remote sensing ane loss). The high variability of the results was attributed
approach, have their strength and constraints. Table 1 to changes of the plant operation (turndown of the
confronts the approaches to each other and describes chemical scrubber and additional operation of the water
their pros and cons. scrubber), the different measurement times (caused by
changing wind conditions) and the analysis of the meth-
3. METHANE EMISSIONS FROM BIOGAS ane background concentration. However, the results still
PLANTS MEASUREMENT RESULTS were in a comparable range.

Table 2 shows a brief review of the most important pub- 4. CONCLUSIONS AND OUTLOOK
lications about methane emissions in the biogas sector
determined by the introduced approaches and methods On a biogas plant, very different methane emission
of section 2. sources are present. Depending on the purpose of the
However, there is still no standardization of the differ- measurement and the kind of the source, different meth-
ent measurement approaches which makes the existing ods to determine the methane emission rate are available.
results difficult to compare. A first step towards a stand- Meanwhile, several published investigations dealing
ardization of the different methods was realized by a joint with methane emission measurements on biogas plants
comparison measurement of different European meas- are available, which are, however, difficult to compare.
urement teams carried out at a Swedish biological waste Consequently, the used approaches and methods need
treatment plant in 2014 [6]. The results from the on-site to be harmonized. A first comparison measurement was
approach ranges from 0.6 to 2.1% methane loss (min carried out in 2014 [6]. However, there is still need for fur-
max, cp. Table 2) and the individual results of the four ther harmonization. Within the current research project
on-site teams varied strongly (coefficient of variation for MetHarmo, this harmonization process is continued. In

Table 2: Review of emission measurements and determined methane emission factors from different biogas
Approach Plant type Measured methane Refe-
(Number of investigated plants) emission factor rence
On-site (leak detection, standard methods, Agricultural (8) 1.1 13.7 % CH4 [5]
dynamic and static chambers) Agricultural with upgrading unit (2)
Biowaste treatment (10) 15295 kg CO2eq [7]
Mg-1Waste [7]
On-site (permanent monitoring of PRV) Agricultural (2) Plant A 0.1% CH4 [8]
Plant B 3.9% CH4
Remote sensing (IDMM) Agricultural (5) 1.6 5.5% CH4 [11]
Agricultural (1) 3.1% CH4 [9]
Agricultural (1) 4% CH4 [10]
Remote sensing (TDM) Waste water treatment (1) 2.1 32.7% CH4 [14]
On-site (leak detection, standard methods, dyna- Biowaste treatment (1) 0.6 2.1% CH4 [6]
mic and static chambers, High volume sampling)
Remote sensing (IDMM and TDM) Biowaste treatment (1) 0.6 3.0% CH4 [6]
Remote sensing (DIAL, CHARM) Agricultural with upgrading unit (1) 0.4% CH4 [13]

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October 2016, the first of two planned comparison meas- tions. Within the project, the PRVs of overall eight biogas
urement campaigns within the MetHarmo project, plants will be investigated over a full year. The first meas-
where different teams from Europe measuring the meth- urement results show that pressure relief valves can be a
ane emission rate simultaneously at the same biogas dominant methane emission source.
plant by using different methods has been carried out. As However, from the results acquired hitherto, effective
a result, a joint guideline establishing standards for a mitigation strategies to reduce fugitive methane emis-
comparable and reliable methane emission quantifica- sions can be deduced, and leading to new political
tion will be developed. trends. The most important methane emission sources
In another current research project BetEmBGA from biogas plants are the methane slip of the biogas
(Operational emissions from biogas plants BetEmBGA, combustion and open handling/storage of digestates as
funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture well as operational methane emissions from PRV and
represented by the Agency for Renewable Resources biogas leaks. Consequently, mitigation strategies have to
FNR, support code: 22020313), the emissions from pres- focus on these points.
sure relief valves are examined carefully. As already men- In Germany, an intense discussion about methane
tioned in section 2.1, pressure relief valves are a very emissions from biogas plants has begun in the recent
time-variant emission source depending on the opera- years, which finally climaxed in the intended novella of
tional state of the biogas plant and the seasonal condi- the German Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control

Table 3: Constructional and operational measures for the mitigation of methane emissions
Measure Advantage Disadvantage
Thermal post Reduction of the remaining carbon compounds (CO, Very high investment costs
combustion CH2O, CH4, Total organic carbon) below TA-Luft limits A t too low carbon content in the off-gas additional biogas
Long lifetime and low-maintenance compared to oxi- or natural gas feed is necessary for the operation
dation catalysts
Gastight Additional biogas storage capacity for flexible opera- Lagoons or very big high-level tanks cannot be gastight
covering of tion, when the storage tank is covered with an integ- covered subsequently or only with too high investment
open digestate rated biogas storage costs
storage tanks Investment costs can be amortized by additional gas
Constructive measures

production depending on the residual gas potential

Automatically Capture of biogas overproduction possible, which Attention to a correct implementation into the biogas sto-
operated flare avoids the triggering of PRVs rage management is necessary. That includes:
Regulation by pressure or filling level of the biogas Own compressor of the flare
storage possible Adjustment of control limits (e.g. pressure limit activating
the flare should be lower than limit pressure of the PRV)
Measurement points of the control limits (e.g. pressure
should be measured directly before/in the PRV)
Monitoring of An operator sees: Retrofitting of PRVs requires high investment costs due to:
PRVs How often a PRV emits Integration of explosive proof sensors and the implemen-
Which conditions cause the triggering of PRV (e.g. tation into the control system of the plant
atmospheric conditions, operational states) Additional measurement equipment integrated in the PRV
Errors of the biogas storage management (e.g. too needs a check of a technical expert and a notification to
small gas pipes, wrong adjustment of blowers form public authorities according to the Federal Immission Con-
air-inflated double membrane roofs, etc.) trol Act
Frequent CHP Lower emissions and higher electrical efficiency of Maintenance charges
maintenance the engine
Frequent Identification of biogas losses Charges for service provider
Operational measures

leakage Economic weighting of biogas losses and repair costs

detection is possible
Balanced Wise filling level in normal operation is for example Available measurement equipment for determining the
biogas filling 50% of the maximum capacity biogas filling level (e.g. cable pull transmitter) are relatively
level and Puffer capacity for balancing gas expansion caused imprecise in the lower and middle measurement range,
feeding by sudden changes of the atmospheric conditions or because the biogas storage foil does not mold consistently
strategies changes of the operational state Feeding strategies are more effective for projectable chan-
Reduced substrate demand, in particular for energy ges of the operational state (e.g. CHP maintenance) and
crops less effective for sudden changes of the operational state
(e.g. overheating of the CHP engine)

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(TA-Luft). For the biogas sector in particular the introduc- [8] Reinelt, T., Liebetrau, J., Nelles, M.: Analysis of opera-
tion of an off-gas limit (1.0gTotal Carbon m-3) for the com- tional methane emissions from pressure relief valves
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[3] DIN EN 15259:2008-01: Air quality Measurement of
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surement sections and sites and for the measure-
ment objective, plan and report; German version Mr. Torsten Reinelt
EN15259:2007, 2008 Deutsches Biomasseforschungszentrum
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