A plant in the Latin American country is using novel technology to produce electricity entirely from industrial organic waste.
The Helios Clean Energy plant lies in a six-hectare property in the rural area of Estación General Paz, about 30 km north of the city of Cordoba, Argentina.
Inaugurated last May, the plant is a family-run affair. It produces biogas entirely from industrial organic waste, an innovation the Ligato family is proud of. When the Ligatos came up with the idea seven years ago, their aim was for their poultry plant to generate the smallest possible carbon footprint and impact on the environment.
“Although it is not the first biogas plant in the province, it is the first with this concept of generating energy 100 percent with industrial organic waste,” Mateo Ligato, the company’s president, tells TRT World at the plant.
Florencia Palena, the chief engineer at the plant, points out that the “biodigesters” feed on everything that comes out of the food production process, in liquid or solid state. “It can be poultry or meat production waste, or rotten beverages like beer or wine.”
Biodigesters normally need a percentage of crops such as corn in order for the input to be stable. But Helios has taken the harder path of using only biological industrial waste, focusing their business model not only on biogas/electricity production but on industrial organic waste management as well, with a circular production model where nothing goes to waste.
A recent tightening of environmental laws in Argentina has forced many companies to improve management of their production waste. The Helios plant has tapped into that opportunity to provide them with a solution, while also turning the biogas it produces into electricity it sells to the government via a new scheme.
Argentina has some of Latin America’s most abundant renewable energy resources — steady winds in southern Patagonia, year-round sunshine in the remote northwest, and hydropower and biomass fed by rivers and expansive farmland.
According to a 2015 environmental law, renewable energy must reach 20 percent of overall energy production in the country by 2025, a big challenge given that it currently represents approximately 13 percent of the country’s energy consumption.
To meet this goal, the government has launched an initiative called RenovAr, Spanish for ‘regenerate’. The scheme aims to facilitate the development of clean energy plants and storage systems through periodic public tenders, allowing companies to pitch their energy generation projects, as well as connect them to the national grid, providing participating companies with tax exemptions and the ability to take part in carbon credit markets.
These are devised as a mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a market in which companies can trade their emissions permits.
According to official data, among renewables, the technology that contributed the most to energy generation in Argentina in 2021 was wind power (74 percent), followed by photovoltaic solar energy (13 percent), small hydraulic systems (7 percent) and bioenergy – making the later a pretty much untapped energy source in the southern country.
Everything is used, nothing is wasted
Currently there are nearly 40 bioenergy production plants in Argentina.
Ligato says he was inspired by plants in Europe, particularly Italy – that apply circular economy principles – as well as biogas plants in Argentina.
“I started to study how we could also do the same with our own waste, so the project grew from there,” Ligato says.
The launch of the RenovAr plan meant the plant would be able to contribute energy to the wholesale market, and swayed Ligato’s investment decision.
“I’m a grown man, I have kids. I began asking myself if I was doing everything I could to give my kids and their generation the best world possible,” Ligato says. “I think that we are in debt with their generation.”
At first, they thought of using chopped corn to generate energy, but soon discarded that idea.
“It didn't seem right to us to generate energy with food,” says Ligato, whose family has been in the poultry business for a long time.
The Helios plant has four biodigesters able to turn more than 130,000 tons of organic waste into biogas. It is able to produce 2.4 megawatts of electricity for the national grid.
In addition, the plant used a heat recovery system to maintain the biodigesters in optimal temperature without the need for external heat production, making the biogas power plant the first of its kind in Latin America.
The plant also produces solid and liquid biofertilisers for the company’s own use.
“To me this is like Disney World,” says Palena, the chemical engineer in charge of supervising every part of the process that feeds the four biodigesters.
“It’s easier to work with crops or other plants, but our challenge is to avoid that, and instead use only organic industrial waste,” Palena adds, explaining that these would be a more stable input into the biodigesters.
Currently, Helios is receiving 30 tons of waste per day that it converts into energy, but it has the capacity to receive up to 300 tons per day.
“In our case, we are going to deliver a final disposal certificate through which the industries that send us their waste will certify that their waste is being used to generate clean energy,” Ligato explains.
Argentina’s biogas potential
Jorge Hilbert, a recently retired biogas expert at the National Institute for Agricultural Technology (INTA) believes that the country needs to integrate the production of biogas with agricultural production.
“As a large food and crop producer, Argentina has problems of nutrient and deficits in the soil, and is facing soil degradation and excessive use of agrochemicals,” Hilbert explains.
“In addition to this problem we are importers of fossil gas. All these issues can be partially addressed with a correct production of biogas and its derivative products, such as solid, liquid and even foliar fertilisers,” he adds.
“This technology provides solutions for all these problems.”