In 2000, CO2 emissions in Emilia-Romagna were estimated at almost 35 million tonnes. If the other greenhouse gases, CH4 and N2O are included, emissions in the region currently exceed 41 million tonnes/yr of CO2 equivalents. Agriculture can contribute to mitigating climate change by producing biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels, as well as by sequestering CO2 in soil organic carbon. An estimated reduction in CO2 emissions of almost 2 million tonnes/yr could be achieved through changes in soil use.
The main objective of this project was to demonstrate how organic residues, such as manure and digestate, can be used in the agricultural production of plant biomass as a source of renewable energy. The net result would be a reduction in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, as well as the sequestration of significant amounts of carbon in soil. The project would seek to quantify flow variations in the carbon cycle arising from proposed agricultural practices. It would aim to develop a methodology for calculating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon sequestration resulting from changes in soil use. It would also assess the possibility of establishing chain production agreements between the agricultural sector, energy producers and consumers.
Specifically, the project set up demonstration energy farms in Emilia-Romagna to analyse the respective potential of the biogas, wood fibre and raw vegetable oil chains. Triticale, maize and sorghum were the biogas crops to be assessed; poplar and hemp for the wood/fibre chain; and rapeseed for the raw vegetable oil chain.
The Seq-Cure project demonstrated that it is possible to implement three short production chains for renewable energy by respecting as much as possible sustainability criteria, whilst enabling the optimisation of energy production and increasing farmers' incomes.
The short production chains of energy from biomass were found to enable:
- A considerable reduction in GHG emissions from farms;
- The lowering of nitrates in the soil and, consequently, in groundwater;
- The maintenance/enrichment of the soil content of organic matter;
- A reduction in irrigation; and
- The substitution of residues with organic fertilising properties for chemical fertilisers.
The biogas energy production chain was found to be the most applicable to the needs of farms and agro-energy providers; while the wood/fibre and raw vegetable oil chains produced interesting results, they were of less interest for several reasons (including legislation, available technology and cost of implementation).
For the biogas chain, the economic results are always positive. This is because of the relatively low cost of biomass production, high biogas output from cereals, and the possibility of selling electric energy with good financial incentives. During the monitoring period, the average yearly income of the farmers on the test sites who were producing energy from their own biomass increased by 160%; the income of farmers purchasing biomass increased by 65%. If the farmers also used the thermic energy produced they could increase their income further and achieve more positive environmental effects. For the wood/fibre chain, hemp production was abandoned and only poplars planted on the demonstration farms. The yearly income derived from this chain was not significantly different from that provided by many other farming activities.
For the raw vegetable oil chain, there was a positive impact only when the farmer uses/sold all the electric and thermic energy produced along with the cake remaining from the mechanical pressing of the seeds. It is to be also highlighted that this production chain requires a significant investment for the creation of the plant.
In summary, the short energy production chains could allow notable savings and generate an increase in farmers' incomes, particularly in the case of the biogas chain, where the increase could be considerable: this is a very positive result of the project, since low incomes are leading increasing numbers of farmers to abandon agriculture for other employment.Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).