International Biogas Congress & Expo: Q&A with speaker Acorn Bioenergy’s Daniel Lambert

Daniel Lambert
Daniel Lambert
Daniel Lambert, downstream and innovation director at Acorn Bioenergy, is a speaker at this year's International Biogas Congress & Expo, taking place in Brussels on 18-19 June
Can you give us an introduction to Acorn and the work that you do?
Acorn Bioenergy is focused on the production of biomethane and biogenic carbon dioxide from anaerobic digestion (AD). It is Acorn’s objective to become the UK’s leading producer and supplier of biomethane by 2026, and to produce the greenest fuels possible. To achieve this, we will be using low- and negative-carbon-equivalent feedstocks (predominantly agricultural), incorporating CO2 capture at all our AD plants, and seeking innovation in new areas.
You will be a speaker at the 2024 International Biogas Congress & Expo. What will your talk address in particular?
I’ll be addressing the role of biogas and biomethane in the pathway to net zero. I intend to look at the full range of benefits that anaerobic digestion can bring in this area, and to compare it with the immediate and long-term alternatives.
Will this be your first time at the 2024 International Biogas Congress & Expo? If so, what has attracted you to the event?
Yes, it is. Word of mouth from last year’s event attracted me and it was already in the diary, so I was honoured to be invited to speak. It’s great to see UK biogas industry luminaries like David Hurren and Christer Stoyell on the list of speakers, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot about developments in other European countries.
As downstream & innovation director at Acorn, are you able to tell us about some initiatives you are focusing on with Acorn?
Our most distinctive initiative is probably Acorn’s use of a virtual pipeline. This is atypical in the UK and most of Europe (though common in the USA and various Asian countries). It’s a great way to tap into locations where the conditions are ideal for AD except for the lack of a suitable gas export pipeline connection. It makes more sense in such cases to site the AD plant where the feedstocks are and then move a couple of trailers a day of compressed biomethane to a centralised hub for injection to the gas grid, rather than move much larger numbers of trailers of feedstock by road to a grid-connected AD plant.
Using agricultural feedstocks will also result in a grade of digestate that is suitable for return to local farmers as a replacement for synthetic fertiliser. There isn’t much robust literature available about the pros and cons of digestate application, so we’re working with researchers, local farmers, large agricultural operators, and so on, to properly understand this. We intend to share our findings broadly.
Making use of Biogenic CO2 is an increasing focus of the AD industry. It’s been in Acorn’s business plan from the start to produce food-grade CO2 at all our plants. This can then be supplied to local industry as a replacement for fossil-derived CO2, or perhaps sequestered when the infrastructure is in place for that.
What do you feel are the major challenges facing the bioenergy sector, and how do you think they can be overcome?
The biggest challenge Acorn has faced so far is the planning process for our AD plants. There’s a significant disparity between the UK’s stated policies to address the challenges of climate change and energy security, and what we’ve seen on the ground in terms of local planning authorities’ support of bioenergy infrastructure, their interpretation of the policy framework, and how long they take to reach planning decisions. We have worked hard to emphasise the benefits that AD brings to local communities. Each of our plants will create high quality jobs for local workers, will generate income for local services providers, hauliers and feedstock suppliers, and will provide digestate for local farmers to use in regenerative agricultural practices.
More broadly, there has been a focus amongst policy makers over the past decade in electrifying everything. Biomethane is a gas and that can make it a bit of a misfit in the energy transition story. I believe bioenergy should be seen as complementary to renewable electricity, not its enemy. Acorn’s parent company Qualitas Energy is a leading investment and management platform focused on renewable energy and a major producer of renewable electricity: We are working on joint Acorn-Qualitas initiatives where biomethane and renewable electricity can work together to the benefit of the customer.
Working with wastes, residues, manures, and so on, isn’t particularly sexy to the uninitiated. This means AD can get overlooked and miss out to other “green shiny things” (in the words of Alan Whitehead, the UK’s Shadow Minister for Energy Security). But I think it’s our ability to solve issues of waste and residue disposal locally that makes the biogas proposition so strong. For example, Acorn’s second AD plant is being built between large poultry barns and glasshouses. We will share heat with the barns, and CO2 and heat with the glasshouses, both of which will then supply the AD plant with their own wastes. This is a deft circular economy initiative and demonstrates the ability of biogas to solve several problems in one package.
You have over a decade’s worth of experience in renewables, working across various energies and countries. Have you seen an acceleration of progress in the sector during that time? If so, in what ways?
Absolutely. According to the IEA’s latest annual report, the amount of renewable energy capacity added to energy systems around the world grew by 50% in 2023, reaching almost 510 GW, with solar PV accounting for three-quarters of additions worldwide. Back in 2009, when I got my first job in renewables, solar was a niche. Now it is a key ingredient in global energy supply.
I think the conditions are in place for biogas to experience a similar level of growth over the next 15 years. Coincidentally, this year’s IEA report acknowledged for the first time the important role that biogas will play – that feels like a significant threshold has been crossed at a policy level.
What is your main focus for the rest of this year?
Acorn’s first AD plant will be commissioned in December, and we’re about to start building our second. We will have seven plants in build by the end of 2024 with 800 GWh of annual biomethane production capacity. That is enough to heat 70,000 UK homes, more than the whole of Oxford, and we expect to have a further seven in build in 2025. The focus now shifts from development to operations and commercialisation, and we are busy building up the team to meet the challenges. Something that has been heartening is seeing how many young and capable people are attracted to working in this area – they understand the unique benefits that AD can bring, and the excellent growth prospects of the area we are working in.
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Daniel Lambert

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