Inclusive Energy: New frontiers for the biogas market

Globally, the biogas sector is undergoing a resurgence, and it is an important part of a mix of cooking technologies needed to bridge the clean cooking access gap.

Globally, the biogas sector is undergoing a resurgence, and it is an important part of a mix of cooking technologies needed to bridge the clean cooking access gap.

Inclusive Energy’s Smart Biogas is an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that monitors in real-time a large number of geographically dispersed household or institutional biogas digesters at a minimal cost, enabling performance insights, asset management, pay as you go, and accurate emissions reduction calculation and reporting.

The platform collects data on individual biogas digesters’ functionality and sends it to a cloud platform, facilitating prompt repairs, maintenance or further user training.

Inclusive Energy

With funding and commercialisation advice and support from Energy Catalyst, Inclusive Energy (*formerly operating under the name Connected Energy) was able to design, prototype, and test Smart Biogas, as well as refine its business model based on targeted customer needs and articulate its forward-looking strategy and financial projections.

“Due to COVID-19 travel restriction, we weren’t able to conduct fields tests and get firsthand feedback from communities in Kenya and Uganda about our technology, but having Energy Catalyst partners such as Energy 4 Impact and Open Capital who are based in these countries, we were able to successfully facilitate online focus group discussions with farmers and cooperatives.”

The challenge

In many African countries, access to electricity and modern cooking fuels is still a challenge for both residential and commercial activities. The majority of over 2.6 billion people globally that rely predominantly on traditional biomass as cooking fuel are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency.

Biogas is an affordable and clean substitute fuel for cooking, particularly for rural households in Africa. However, its deployment faces several challenges, including limited awareness about opportunities for biogas applications, the initial cost of installation, lack of skilled labour for installation and operation, inadequate and intermittent government support, feedstock availability, need for consistent maintenance, behavioral and social acceptance, and competition from fossil fuel-based alternatives.

Inclusive Energy working in the field

In addition, over 40% of the household biogas digesters surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa have faults. There is an urgent need to prevent breakdowns and malfunctions during the post-installation stage. As a result, the biogas market requires an efficient oversight mechanism with new technical expertise to provide data from inside the digesters to companies and national programs.

The innovation

Inclusive Energy’s Smart Biogas addresses these issues by providing real-time monitoring of biogas digesters. Using machine learning and IoT, Smart Biogas predicts and sends notifications of digester breakdowns, while at the same time enabling pay-as-you-go biogas. Smart Biogas monitors numerous geographically dispersed household and institutional biogas digesters at a minimal cost, seeking to address financial barriers and operational inefficiencies, and thus enabling viable biogas-as-a-service commercial models. Additional platform features include enhanced analytics and carbon offset verification. Smart Biogas provides greater transparency for the sector, fostering confidence for all stakeholders and engendering growth.

In May 2021, the Clean Development Mechanism Executive Board accepted Inclusive Energy’s Smart Biogas proposal as a new way of monitoring and reporting carbon abatement in biogas digesters, paving the way for companies to remotely monitor carbon abatement and qualify for carbon financing. This approval means that updated, remote metering solutions can be used by Gold Standard and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to monitor and report carbon abatement. This will result in more accurate carbon reduction quantification for biogas operators, as well as lower costs for accessing results-based carbon finance.

Inclusive Energy animals and people working

Lowering barriers to accessing climate finance should help off-grid rural end-users benefit from carbon markets, from which they are largely excluded at present. Specifically, carbon finance could help smaller biogas operators make their products more affordable to low-income, rural customers that lack access to clean cooking options.

The project is led by Inclusive Energy Technologies, with support from prominent actors in the biogas sector in East Africa, Kenya Biogas Program, and Biogas Solutions Uganda, along with technical input from the University of Nottingham.

The benefits

Biogas is a viable cooking fuel for any household that has access to sufficient organic feedstock or that can purchase biogas from producers. It is used for cooking mainly in emerging and developing economies, where it helps households through its numerous social, environmental, health, and economic benefits. By turning organic waste into a renewable energy resource, the rising demand for energy can be met while also delivering wider environmental benefits.

Smart Biogas provides a powerful tool that facilitates increased access to biogas technology for more people, especially low-income rural communities. According to Inclusive Energy, the technology is a perfect product for businesses looking to reduce their operational costs of maintaining a fleet of biogas digesters or seeking to expand their market reach by enabling pay-as-you-go financing for existing product packages.

The potential for biogas and bioenergy production in Africa and Asia is huge and there is considerable opportunity for the participation of more investors. However, regulatory and financial incentives for the sector, adequate training for maintenance, construction, and financial evaluation, and increased awareness of the benefits of biogas for cooking to overcome some of the cultural barriers are of great importance for biogas uptake.

Engineer monitors biodigester from the lab. Credit: Mia Foster | Story x Design
Engineer monitors biodigester from the lab. Credit: Mia Foster | Story x Design

“One of our biggest barriers to scaling our business has been accessing big-ticket capital for manufacturing since we provide hardware and software, however, with the support and advice from Energy Catalyst, Inclusive Energy has applied for Innovate UK’s innovation loan for micro, small and medium-sized businesses,” said Gareth.

Thanks to the investment readiness support received through Energy Catalyst, Inclusive Energy has successfully raised an equity investment of £428,000 on the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, to cover the working capital required for scaling up their product manufacturing. Their crowdfunding campaign was also supported by Crowd Power, part of the Transforming Energy Access platform, which aims to help energy access enterprises to attract finance through crowdfunding. In the long run, Inclusive Energy believes the adoption of biogas technology in Africa will contribute to the well-being and economic prosperity of the continent as a whole.