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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

'Cow Power' May Help Ease Energy Crisis

Enthusiasts are pushing anaerobic digester systems. They use bacteria to turn manure into fertilizer and methane, which can be burned in gas-powered electrical generators.


ONTARIO — Most people roll up their windows or hold their breath when they drive past the dairy farms of the Chino basin.

But the stink of manure doesn't bother Danish businessman Poul Rasmussen. Because where others smell waste, he smells value.

"The possibilities here, they are endless," he said on a recent crisp morning as he surveyed row after row of steaming brown manure, his truck window down.

Once, there was little market in Chino for people like Rasmussen, president of Bioscan LLC, an environmental engineering firm. Among other things, the company builds anaerobic digester systems that use bacteria to turn manure into fertilizer and methane, which then can be burned in gas-powered electrical generators.

Although the technology has existed for nearly 50 years and is used by dairy and pig farmers in Europe and the Midwest, California dairymen have been slow to embrace such systems.

But now, amid the energy crisis and environmental concerns about water and other kinds of dairy farm pollution, digesters are looking better because they would give farmers an independent source of electricity while also cutting down on greenhouse gases and ammonia.

A group that includes the Milk Producers Council, an Ontario-based trade organization, and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency wants to build several digesters in the Chino basin and is accepting proposals from companies including Bioscan.

State Sen. Nell Soto (D-Pomona) has written a bill seeking $25 million for digester research. And the National Renewable Energies Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is getting more calls looking for digester funds than ever before.

"We are aware of a much heightened level of interest," said Ralph Overend, a research fellow at the lab.

Depending on size, a digester can cost several hundred thousand dollars to millions to build. To finance systems, farmers usually must depend on government support because conventional lenders have historically viewed digesters as speculative technology, experts say.

Digester systems come in several forms, from silos to covered lagoons, but are all basically "enlarged stomachs," said Doug Williams, a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who has done digester research for more than a decade.

In an oxygen-free enclosure, manure and water are combined and heated. Anaerobic bacteria, which naturally live in a cow's digestive system, break down the waste, removing impurities such as ammonia. The process also creates carbon dioxide and methane, which can be piped into gas-burning electrical generators.

It costs about 6 cents to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity with a digester, said Alan Grant, project manager for Bioscan. The same power currently costs a San Bernardino County farmer about 10 cents to buy, according to Southern California Edison.

Digesters have long been used in sewage treatment plants and other businesses that produce large amounts of organic waste. But adapting the machines for use in California dairies was problematic because "there was no need to," said Bob Feenstra, executive director of the Milk Producers Council. Before the current energy crisis, electricity was relatively cheap.

"Why would we spend the extra money when we got what we needed from the state?" he asked.

Furthermore, the few dairymen who did try digesters had little success because the machines were too big and complicated, Williams said.

"Farmers just didn't have time to mess around with too many moving parts; it was easier to just get electricity from the grid," he said.

Mark Moser, president and owner of RCM Digesters in Berkeley, has built more than 30 digesters throughout the world. Before the energy crisis, he had not heard from a California dairyman for five years. In the months since, he has received 40 calls.

Most of the 224 dairy farmers in Chino have bought backup generators to operate their pumps in case of a blackout, officials say. But if they had digesters, they would have electricity to milk their cows even during a blackout.

Soto points out that there is about half a million tons of manure on farms in the basin.

"It's silly to leave something there that would produce energy," Soto said. "We ought to take advantage of digesters so we could have some alternative so we can stop having these energy producers bringing us to our knees."

Digesters could also cut down on dust and prevent further ground water contamination by containing the manure, which is currently either kept in lagoons or trucked to holding fields.

The Chino ground water basin is highly polluted, thanks to the region's long history of citrus and dairy farming, both of which have seeped toxins into the ground. Nitrate levels in certain parts of the basin are three times the acceptable level.

Furthermore, a digester could help keep the milking industry in the Chino basin. Dairy farmers had planned several huge dairies in the Central Valley area, but those ventures are being held up by environmental lawsuits.

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