In conversation with
Mr. Sean Thomas
MD | Bio2Watt (Pty) Ltd
FDI Spotlight: Given that Bio2Watt was established in 2007, how has the company grown in the last 10 years and what are the benefits of South Africa having a commercial biogas plant?
Sean Thomas: It has definitely grown exponentially in terms of staff and jobs created. When the company was set up, it was only me; it took a few years to get off the ground and a team has since been put in place in Bio2Watt and at the plant. The team works on our 4.6 megawatt (MW) Bronkhorstspruit Biogas Plant, where we generate power from waste using anaerobic digestion technology, or the fermentation of biodegradable materials such as biomass, abattoir, manure, and food and beverage waste to produce biogas. Biogas mainly comprises methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and may have small amounts of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), moisture. Methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO) can be combusted or oxidised with oxygen and this release of energy allows biogas to be used as a fuel. It can also be used in anaerobic digesters in a gas engine to convert the energy in the gas into electricity and heat and can be compressed to be used to power motor vehicles. The power generated here is injected into the national grid and we currently supply roughly 30% of BMW’s requirements in Pretoria. The Bronkhorstspruit plant is worth around 15 million euros today, employs about 60 people directly and indirectly and we have about seven more people working from the office. Although Bio2Watt is still small, we are growing and we believe we are making great inroads in South Africa’s renewable energy sector.
Do you see South Africa’s goal of tripling its investment in renewable energies between 2015 and 2020 as viable?
Sean Thomas: Yes, definitely. In terms of the initial renewable energy programme started a few years ago, I believe the commitment into renewable energy investment has been a huge success. Unfortunately, due to Bio2Watt’s size, at the time this programme was developed and launched, we were a little under the radar. To date the main projects that have taken off and that have been quite heavily invested in are in the wind and solar areas. There was also this perception that developing power for private industries was not possible. However, this is not true. When setting up Bio2Watt I researched the Electricity Act and discussed with the regulator and the department of energy and discovered though it was not done and there was no real precedent it could be done.
Do you think that there is still a challenge with implementing the idea that energy can be produced using biogas and, if so, is it due to scepticism or lack of education?
Sean Thomas: I believe a lot of focus has been placed on using wind and solar power as a form of alternative energy, and not a lot of awareness has been created around the use and possibilities of biogas. As an industrial working with biogas, I believe that it is up to us in the industry to increase the level of awareness, especially on the continent, inform decision makers on the process and especially the benefits. The fact is that if people are not aware of the merits of biogas , very little will happen. We have had a number of ministers, mayors and other officials visit the plant from not only South Africa, but the rest of Africa too; so people are learning about it and its benefits. We have also participated in a number of forums about renewable energy in South Africa. The reaction we have received has been quite positive, and people tell us that the use of biogas and what we are doing is best of practice in terms of renewable energy and waste management. Regarding the technology, we are demonstrating that it does work and there is a level of confidence in it. However, awareness around the applicability of it needs to be increased. For example, it is not well-known that we remove around 400–500 tonnes of waste per day from the environment diverting organic waste from landfill sites, and whatever is left over after being turned into biogas is then sent back to the agricultural sector to be used as an organic fertiliser. An agriculturally focused country such as South Africa will have a lot farm and food waste, and this is a good way to get rid of it. We are in the process of replicating using this waste to energy model in other South African and African cities.
Do you think that South Africa will implement regulations that make it obligatory to implement some form of sustainability module and how long do you think it will until it does?
Sean Thomas: It is definitely starting. There is a green building code being implemented. and the National Environmental Management Act is legislating that organic wet waste must be diverted away from landfill. There are certain rules and regulations you need to adhere to when it comes to developing new buildings. I believe that legislation will only go further from there. In terms of biogas, there are certain standards you need to adhere to. I believe that a strong drive for sustainability and energy efficiency, is hampered by the false perception that renewable energy is more costly. In the long run, it is not more costly! I have met quite a few CEOs who switched to a more sustainable way of running their businesses, as well as living and have seen their businesses benefiting financially. I am less concerned with recent political changes in leadership, as I think that sustainability and energy efficiency is starting to standalone without government funding as the business case in the long run makes sense, especially when one factors in externalities.
What is the significance to you, personally, regarding biogas and Bio2Watt?
Sean Thomas: I moved to South Africa after attending a conference where Eskom was speaking about the massive electrification they were doing at the time. They were extending the grid to the townships and areas that did not have electricity, and I was interested in working on the project particularly around Demand Side Management and the rollout of renewable energy. Looking back, I think what motivated me the most was the amount of people who told me that it could not be done. For every person who said that, there was someone else who told me how interesting and fantastic the idea was. Therefore, as challenging as the journey was, it has been just as rewarding. Moving forward, I think South Africans should stop doubting themselves. We need to emphasise what South Africa has to offer. All of us, in whichever business we are in, need to get out there and talk about the country and promote our success stories as widely as possible.