Supplies alarm: the agro-energetic alternative
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is taking its toll in human, economic and social terms. In addition to the direct consequences of the war, there are also the consequences of rising agri-food prices caused by soaring fuel and fertiliser prices. Circular economy and renewable sources are key to combating food insecurity and energy prices
We have scarcely had time to breathe a sigh of relief at the easing of the pandemic squeeze, when we are already burdened by an armed conflict with unpredictable implications. After two years in which the effects of Covid-19 have often been compared to those of a war (deaths, restriction of freedoms, social distancing, economic crisis, etc.), we are now faced with a 'special military operation' that may degenerate into a global war. The crisis between Russia and Ukraine, an issue that could theoretically be resolved with the tools of diplomacy, is in fact taking a very bad turn with the threat of a more or less concrete recourse to the use of nuclear weapons.
The atomic option, however, is not only linked to the war scenario, but is presenting itself as one of the possible alternative energy options to Russian supplies of natural gas and oil. Faced with the tragedy of the Ukrainian nation and the risk of international escalation, focusing on energy issues (markets and costs) might seem cynical, but - as a component of the ongoing crisis - it is a factor that must be carefully considered. In the space of a few weeks - due to a sudden increase in fuel prices - the 'green' projects of recovery and resilience seem to have taken a back seat. The current energy crisis seems to be reviving the massive exploitation of fossil fuels (including coal, used to power thermoelectric power stations) or pushing towards solutions that, like Generation IV nuclear power, are based on technologies that are not yet mature. Instead, in this intricate affair, the role of renewables proves to be even more strategic, both on the environmental front - given that the climate crisis has not been resolved - and for greater energy independence in an increasingly complex geopolitical framework. Today, more than ever, we realise how much the development of RES would have sheltered us from the uncertainties of foreign supplies. In fact, as a result of the ever decreasing extraction capacity of the North Sea fields, the EU's supplies of Russian-produced gas have increased significantly. Whereas at the beginning of 2000, gas imports from Russia accounted for about 30% of total European needs, they now account for 46%. The rest comes from Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan or (by ship) Qatar, all countries with which it is not easy to reach long-term agreements.
Italy's consumption of natural gas, which is essential for national electricity production, stood at 71 billion cubic metres in 2021. Of this, almost 38% came from Russia, 28.5% from Algeria, 9.8% from Qatar, 4.3% from Libya and only 2.4% from the North Sea.
Another aspect of great importance - linked to the blockage of supplies and the increase in natural gas prices triggered by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine - is the significant increase in the cost of fertilisers, both nitrogen-based (urea, ammonium nitrate) and potassium- and phosphorous-based, which are essential for the agricultural sector to ensure food production standards.
What's more, the rise in costs coincides with the start of spring sowing (maize, soya and sorghum) and the fertilisation of autumn grains such as wheat. These price rises are a side effect of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the world's leading fertiliser exporter, while Ukraine, with its ports now blocked, plays an important role in urea exports (eighth in the world).
According to Coldiretti's estimates, wheat cultivation in Italy this year will cost about 400 euros more per hectare, from seed to threshing. With fuel prices rising by around 50%, agro-mechanical operations in the field will cost around 15% more per hectare than before. Against this backdrop, it has been noted that investments in new 4.0 technologies have enabled many farmers to limit the damage by optimising the use of technical means of production and thus allowing greater efficiency in operations. In addition, significant benefits have been derived from the development of agro-energy, in particular for bio-energy chains and photovoltaics on the roofs of stables and sheds. In light of these aspects, Ettore Prandini (President of Coldiretti) expressed the need to "seize the opportunities that come from the circular economy and provide the country with a sustainable energy reserve with the agricultural biomethane chain" with which it will be possible to satisfy a substantial share of the national gas requirements. In this regard, the estimates of the Italian Biogas Consortium (CIB) to 2030 quantify the potential of agricultural biomethane in about 6.5 billion cubic metres/year, to which should be added a share of biomethane derived from the organic fraction of municipal waste (1.5 billion cubic meters), for a total of 8 billion cubic meters. So we could cover 10-15% of current demand.
A further advantage of biomethane production chains is the possibility of using the residue of the anaerobic digestion process of agricultural biomass (digestate) as an organic fertiliser, instead of chemical fertilisers produced from fossil sources. Thanks to the use of organic fertilisers, many Italian farms are easing the burden of increased purchase costs for chemical fertilisers.
Biomethane therefore has a strategic role of primary importance, but despite the technological and cultural maturity achieved, there is still a significant delay in the hoped-for development of the sector, and a wide gap remains between the announced objectives and the projects actually implemented. From this perspective, all the instruments needed to speed up projects and investments should be activated, as they have so far been blocked by bureaucracy, a lack of legislation and even local opposition to plant construction.
Suffice it to say that - even today - the timeframe for setting up an agricultural biomethane plant, not counting any permitting hiccups, is normally one and a half years, of which six months are needed for authorisations and another 12 months for actual construction, plus the time needed for commissioning.
In conclusion, the agricultural sector, while suffering greatly from the effects of this unfortunate war, can also be seen as a useful tool for dealing with this crisis and avoiding others. It is therefore worrying that - according to the intelligence of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence - the Russian armed forces have targeted agricultural machinery. In fact, the grain sowing campaign is due to start in these few weeks, which naturally requires the use of tractors and seeders (certainly not tanks or missiles) to guarantee food security in Ukraine and many other countries, including Italy.