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Manure has hidden gold within

November 30, 1999
By S. Ram Shrivastava

With renewed interest and grant funding for renewable green energy production at federal and state levels, now is the time for farmers to take action and extract the gold within manure waste. Photo by Margaret Land

America faces a serious challenge due to its dependence on oil- and petroleum-based energy sources. Billions of dollars go out of the country and the economy suffers as energy costs keep going up and there is no end in sight. Fortunately, communities with large animal farm-based businesses have an enormous untapped resource to help solve the energy problem in a collective manner.

New York is one of the top three states in the country with very large dairy and animal farms. Some counties, such as Wyoming and St. Lawrence, have more than 40,000 cows. Historically, the neighbors have complained about odors and other environmental problems resulting from these large farm businesses, some having 2,000 to 3,000 cows on one farm. The main cause is reported to be undigested manure that is collected and spread in the dry season on the farm land.

A risk associated with capital investments has prevented most farmers from making an investment in anaerobic digester technologies. With renewed interest and grant funding for renewable green energy production at federal and state levels, now is the time to take action and extract the gold within manure waste. In this case the word “gold” refers to biogas energy that can be recovered using efficient digester technology, and complemented by gas processing to make bio-fuel for transportation needs.

A great example of this approach is Whatcom County in Washington state, which  has made a county-wide effort to help the farmers realize this value and deal with the high cost of transportation fuel needs in the community. The chart below clearly shows that significant economic value can be realized by generating power for use on the farm and using excess biogas to clean and produce fuel for the vehicles as compressed natural gas or hydrogen.

Imagine a county with 40,000 cows able to make auto fuel of 20,000 gallons per day with current value of $80,000 per day. The electricity from manure digestion can make the farm energy-independent. Excess biogas can provide revenue via the sale of auto fuel, digested or composted solids sold as organic fertilizer, and treated effluent applied back on the farm with no odors and complaints. It is a win-win solution.

Most of the farm communities also have dairy processing plants with organic waste produced. The farms with digesters can increase their revenues and higher biogas production by treating this hauled-in waste. The central digester concept has been very profitable for farmers and makes them part of an energy generation center. Since excess power transmission is not permitted across property lines, it makes sense to broaden the approach and install gas cleaning and hydrogen generation units for best value in the form of energy that can be shipped to fueling stations serving municipal or private cars.

The political leaders need to capture this opportunity and help their farms become catalysts of growth and partners in seeking energy independence. Such an initiative will create new jobs, strengthen farm businesses and result in a better environment.

The country is seeking to produce green power to replace oil. Many financial incentives are going to be offered to farmers. Start planning the countywide initiatives and solve these energy problems. If the community is lucky enough to have a large animal base, treat it like an oil well with an unlimited source of clean energy in various forms.

What are we waiting for?

S. Ram Shrivastava is a professional engineer, LEED-AP, and president of Larsen Engineers, based in Rochester, N.Y.