A company called Farm Power based in Washington State is trying to stimulate rural farming communities in the Pacific Northwest. The idea is not new, taking waste from cattle and capturing the gas to burn for energy generation. The reason dairy farms aren’t doing this right now on there own is because of the high capital costs for commercial grade digesters that harvest the methane gas from manure.
Farm Power formed to meet business demand for biogas or manure power by utilizing dairy farmers waste products and preventing greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere. Farm Power takes on the risk of providing the equipment to digest and extract methane gas which they then burn for electricity and sell to local power companies they’ve brokered deals with.
In general, dairy farming is a very sustainable form of farming because of the use of animals. Dairy farmers are aware of the value of manure produced by their cattle. Nutrient rich manure is used to re-fertilize the land which creates a closed loop because the nutrients are used and re-used in a continuos circle. However, storing and spreading out raw manure on a field can lead to some draw backs that include a foul odorous smell, runoff, and greenhouse gas emissions.
21st century technology can better utilize manure power to harness energy though. Specially designed digesters are basically an air tight tank thats heated to around the same temperature as a cows stomach (100 degrees). In those conditions, the bacteria that exists in the manure are excited and begin to chow down on the solids, thereby releasing methane gas. The gas rises to the top of the digester where it is captured and burned by a generator. There is also a feedback loop for excess heat that is routed back to the tank to maintain that perfect bacteria temperature of around 100 degrees.
Once raw manure has been processed for methane biogas, two by-products are left, one which the farmer can still use as fertilizer for their fields and a clean digested fiber substance which can used for gardening or as bedding for the cows.
As mentioned before, Farm Power makes money by generating the electricity and selling it to local power companies but they also make money by selling carbon offsets since they are substantially reducing greenhouse gases. The Federal Government also pays Farm Power in the form of tax credits because they are creating a renewable energy (biogas) by capturing methane from manure.
According to Sustainable Business Oregon, the projects to build digesters cost around $3-$4 million a piece and generate around $500,000 a year in revenue. The digesters are typically paid for in about ten years and are built to last about 30 years. This type of business model is apparently attracting investors who are looking for long term returns.
Digesters are being used in Washington State and two more are currently set to come online in Oregon (with hopefully more to come in the future). Unlike other forms of renewable energy like ethanol derived from corn, this type of renewable gas from manure power does not reduce the food supply. If you ask me, these types of innovative solutions that promote renewable energy, prevent greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate rural economies are just the kind of America we need to see more of. I am hopeful that green tech, green energy, and energy efficiency will lead the world on a path to economic prosperity and (in my opinion) Farm Power is a part of that future.
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