South Africa’s biogas pioneer.

By 2020, the BMW Group aims to purchase electricity exclusively from renewable sources for its plant in South Africa. This looks achievable – thanks to a courageous entrepreneur, a biogas plant and 30,000 cattle.

When Sean Thomas launched Bio2Watt in Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa in 2007, the time was ripe for a biogas plant. A herd of around 30,000 cattle and the waste from regional food manufacturers provided a solid basis for his project – and the demand for renewable energy was high. South Africa’s economy was besieged by an energy crisis and soaring electricity prices.

For Sean, who grew up in the UK and studied in France, investing in renewable energy in his adopted country seemed the logical thing to do. As solar and wind power were too costly for him, the versatile company founder decided on a biogas plant that would “set completely new standards for waste management” in the country.

However, although he’d planned on a three-year setup period, it was eight years before Bio2Watt would generate its first electricity. “Getting investors excited about the idea was probably the biggest hurdle”, recalls the entrepreneur, who was able to raise initial capital of eleven million dollars for Bio2Watt. It was a lot easier to find his first major customer: the BMW Group. Sean’s start-up came at just the right time for the Munich-based automobile manufacturer, which has been operating a plant in Rosslyn near Johannesburg since the 1970s. “We were looking for a supplier of green electricity”, says Kavish Boodhram, who is the Energy Manager at the BMW Group in Rosslyn. The company had set itself the target of purchasing electricity exclusively from renewable sources by 2020. This was an ambitious goal in South Africa, which has been reliant on coal for its energy production for years and is one of the world’s largest producers of CO2 emissions.

As exotic as Sean’s biogas plant seemed in South Africa, the energy experts at the BMW Group quickly grew to like it. Every day, Bio2Watt converts more than 300 metric tons of organic food waste and agricultural waste into methane-containing biogas for energy generation. “All it takes for this process is waste water from the farms pollution dams – without draining on the country’s scarce water resources ­– and full microbiological activity”, says Sean. The biomass left over from the fermentation process is also be used as an organic fertiliser for the fields. “This reduces the requirement for chemical fertiliser and improves the nutrients in the soil”, says Sean with some pride. But before production could begin, he and his new customer had their work cut out to convince the banks and authorities. South Africa did not have a clear regulatory framework for the private sale of energy.

Bio2Watt has been producing green electricity for the BMW Group since the end of 2016 – and is already covering around 33 per cent of the plant’s needs. BMW SA together with Bio2Watt is investigating an expansion of the Biogas Plant to produce more energy for BMW SA. “After all, we want to achieve a complete supply of renewable energy to Plant Rosslyn by 2020”, says Kavish. That’s no problem for Sean who has theoretically enough waste to increase the output of his biogas plant by at least 50 per cent. Over the next few years he wants to invest heavily in the plant and generate in excess of 50 megawatts of green energy throughout the African continent, by making use of waste and thus leaving a cleaner environment. Actually, enquiries for his green electricity are already coming in from all over Africa. The intrepid green-energy pioneer wants to expand, because margins in his electricity-from-waste business are still too low to be really lucrative. The Rosslyn team will remain true to him. That’s for sure!