By Diane Mettler
The 21st-century pork farmer
By Diane Mettler
Three generations of the Ringler family pose for a photo in front of the farm’s anaerobic digester, located near Ashley, OH. They are Alex (left) and wife Misa, with their sons Isaac, 8, and Jude, 3, and Alex’s parents, Bill and Yama.
Large pork producers face many challenges, including manure storage, odor issues, high energy and fuel bills, just to name a few. But what if all those issues could be solved with the purchase of one technology – an anaerobic digester.
It was for that reason that Alex Ringler, CEO of Ringler Energy, located near Ashley, Ohio, contacted quasar energy group in 2010. They had a large finisher facility with 7,000 hogs between 50 and 250 pounds and were also receiving food waste. They needed a technology that could handle both.
“A biodigester is not sustainable if it’s just utilizing livestock waste,” says Ringler. “You need to have other feedstock available to make a recipe that can precipitate stable function and quality of methane, to create renewable energy.”
Two years of research
It wasn’t an investment they took lightly, and before investing in a large-scale digester, they did their homework.
“We had a long research and development program,” says Ringler. “We had at least two to two-and-a-half years of research and development to work on feasibilities and to make sure that we were to be able to do what we said. Furthermore, my lender wanted to be able to quantify that as well, which I can’t blame.”
Research also included Ringler and his father traveling to Europe where anaerobic digesters are plentiful.
In the end they chose quasar technology, which Ringler says is not only very good, but also locally based
in Cleveland, Ohio, just an hour-and-a-half away.
Once quasar technology was chosen, Ringler and quasar began working out the details. What they determined was that the best path would be to partner, and Ringler Energy was born.
Melvin R. Kurtz, president of quasar says, “Because if quasar has skin in the game, there’s a vested interest in the success; we’re not selling it and running for cover. We partnered and we built it, remained involved. That includes all of the facility upgrades, the hardware upgrades, the software upgrades, any technology changes.
Kurtz adds that a number of questions have to be answered before deciding if an anaerobic digester is a solid business decision. “The first thing is, is it affordable? Second, is it sustainable? Third is where does it fit into our firm’s business practices? Lastly, what’s the return going be and how do I limit my risk? We worked through those issues with Ringlers. We provided some performance guarantees, and now a year later, we’re all happy.”
Ringler chose not to be involved in the construction. In fact, one of the reasons they chose quasar was because they offered a turnkey operation.
“Construction took about six months and about another three months to be able to commission the facility,” says Ringler. “We came into full energy production around July or August of 2013.”
The system is quasar’s standard model – 980,000 gallons of storage divided by two processes. The first is a 230,000-gallon tank – the acid phase – where all the organics are collected and start to convert into energy. Every thirty minutes material from the first tank is fed to the second 750,000-gallon digestion tank, where the bacteria does the majority of the conversion.
Combined, the tanks allow Ringler to process 50,000 tons per year of organic biomass and produce about 850 kWh megawatts of renewable electricity. That’s enough power to run his entire farm with extra to put onto the grid.
In addition to the electricity that is produced, Ringler also receives the benefits of heat coming off the generator itself. Hot water is circulated through all the adjacent shops, including mechanical shops, via radiant heat in the flooring.
“In the winter time, we never have any type of snow residue or build up because we have hot water underneath all of our concrete structures,” says Ringler. “We circulate the hot water through and I have radiant heat through the old
The footprint of the digester facility, including a 40×40 control room, is relatively small, just 1.5 acres. It’s located next to the existing livestock barns – four barns each containing 1,250 finish hogs, and one containing 2,000 hogs. All the barns had shallow pits, and a pull-plug system that gravity fed into lagoons. The manure was stored there until it was time for application.
“Now we essentially have a manifold that connects all the barns on their discharge pipe, and we collect the 7,000 gallons of manure on a daily basis,” says Ringler. “The manure never hits the light of day. As we handle the manure through a pull-plug system, it goes into a covered concrete tank, along with almost an equal amount of byproducts, where it’s [then] fed daily into our biodigester.”
The byproducts come from local businesses and include things like whey, cottage cheese and brewers yeast, and Ringler says those byproducts have allowed the farm an offset for livestock nutrition. “We can use these products as a supplement to traditional dry feed.”
The HRT (hydraulic retention time), from entry to exit, is about 30 days. Once the biomass leaves the digester the odor is gone but the nutrients remain. The biomass is stored in lagoons until it’s ready to be applied to the fields via an Airway dragline system.
All the Ringler facilities (the family has several throughout the Midwest) are Ohio EPA permitted facilities and allowed to use the organic fertilizer as a supplement to commercial fertilizer. This has helped the bottom line.
“Ringler Energy distributes the organic fertilizer back to Ringler Farm’s grain and farming operations at a discounted cost compared to commercial fertilizer,” says Ringler.
The quasar technology doesn’t require a lot of manpower and the system can be monitored easily from an iPhone from almost anywhere. Even so, there was some education required by Ringler employees and quasar conducted a three to four-month training session at the farm while the facility was commissioning.
“I had three people go through this commissioning process, of which I always have one person onsite every day,”
Kurtz adds that all of the programming and software is handled by quasar. “It’s one of the ways that we can control the quality of the work. Like Alex and his father Bill concluded, you want to make sure that your digester company has skin in the game.”
Next step – fuel
Since the plant’s startup, energy production has exceeded expectations. In fact, it’s been so successful that the Ringlers have installed a second, identical quasar digester in Ohio and they are in the process of bringing it in service.
The next step will be compressed natural gas (CNG). The biogas upgrade has been approved but not installed yet. When it is, CNG will be utilized in Ringler’s expanding CNG fleet – from light duty trucks to it heavy-duty semi tractors. In fact, Ringler Energy currently has five semi trucks that run on compressed natural gas.
Kurtz is excited about the CNG upgrade, or what they all call Phase 2. “We do the gas upgrade in house. It’s our technology, and we’ve partnered with Air Products to do that. Soon Ringler will not only have a revenue stream from electric and heat, but also CNG that will cost him less than half of what diesel costs, and it burns 60 percent cleaner.”
The next generation of farming
Some farms may have looked at anaerobic digesters and decided they were too expensive, but both Ringer and Kurtz say that if it’s been a few years, its worth revisiting. For example, the quasar digesters cost only half of what they did just six years ago.
Kurtz says, however, it still it takes a certain size farm to make a digester economical. He estimates the smallest digester that would provide the economies of scale required is 25,000 tons per year—the equivalent of about 100 tons a day of feedstock.
Both Kurtz and Ringler are excited about the future of anaerobic digesters. “It’s the next generation farming,” says Kurtz. “You get to be a better neighbor. You get to have a sustainable operation. You get to increase your revenue stream and you get to be more autonomous, all in one decision – building a digester.”
For Ringler the choice has allowed their operation to achieve efficiency and consistency. “The goal for us is that we have a fleet of 30 trucks on the road every day moving our internal product, livestock feed, and liquid byproducts to our facilities.”
In short, Ringler farm will complete the ultimate loop. Manure from the livestock will create energy, which will be used to fuel the trucks that fertilize the fields and will then be used to deliver the feed to the livestock.
“I truly believe that a family farm – which is what we are – has the capability to be modern and progressive. Conservative thinking is not always the best practice,” says Ringler. “Change is good.”