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From waste to watts

Dairy farmers are being pitched a new way to turn manure into electricity

June 09, 2013|Ricardo Lopez
  • Ron Koetsier's Visalia dairy will be the first in California to get a new generation of manuremethane digester. He invested $1 million in one in 1985 but shut it down because it didn’t meet air-quality standards.
Ron Koetsier's Visalia dairy will be the first in California to get… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Dairy farmer Ron Koetsier's 1,200 cows produce roughly 90 tons of manure daily, and for the last three decades, he has tried unsuccessfully to turn the stinky dung into energy to power his 450-acre farm in Visalia.

He installed a nearly $1-million renewable energy system in 1985 that used the methane from manure to create electricity for his farm. In 2002, he replaced that system with newer technology, but he hit a snag when air-quality standards called for expensive retrofits to reduce air pollution; he eventually shut down the system in 2009.

In a few weeks, however, Koetsier's renewable-energy efforts will get a reboot as a new company replaces his current system with one that is expected to satisfy strict air standards in the highly polluted San Joaquin Valley.

A decade or so ago, dozens of California dairy farmers built million-dollar systems called methane digesters that convert manure into power. Then, unexpected pollution problems, regulatory roadblocks and low rates of return killed most such digester systems, leaving only a handful in operation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 12, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Power from dairy waste: In the June 9 Business section, an article about dairy farmers exploring the use of systems that convert cow manure into energy identified Stacey Sullivan as policy director at San Francisco environmental group Conservation California. The group's name is Sustainable Conservation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 16, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Power from dairy waste: In the June 9 Business section, an article about dairy farmers exploring the use of systems that convert cow manure into energy identified Stacey Sullivan as policy director at San Francisco environmental group Conservation California. The group's name is Sustainable Conservation.

All that could be changing as renewable energy companies develop new ways of running digesters to boost profits. They're improving technology to meet tough smog-control rules. At the same time, the state is trying out a streamlined permitting process to help remove costly regulatory hurdles.

Koetsier will be the first dairy farmer to install a digester under the state's program. He said he is optimistic that this go-around -- his third attempt to make a system work -- will finally pay off.

After hearing of the technological and other advances, he decided to "give it another whirl," Koetsier said.

State officials are pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that is causing utilities to pursue more renewable energy sources. Experts say digesters show particular promise in California, the top dairy producing state, with 1.8 million cows.

"If these digesters run properly, they can reduce odors associated with manure, stabilize nitrogen and have a number of environmental benefits," said John Blue, climate change advisor for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The systems "add to California's goal of renewable power generation. We'd like to see dairy digesters as part of the mix."

One California renewable energy company, CH4 Power Inc., said it plans to build more than 40 digester systems over the next year. It's set to begin construction on its first digester on Koetsier's dairy in the coming weeks. Other firms are expected to follow.

The challenge, however, may be trying to persuade weary dairy farmers to give digesters another try, especially after some tough years in the dairy industry.

Dairy farmers have plenty of manure lying around to convert to energy. A typical cow can produce as much as 150 pounds of dung daily. That presents a continuing challenge for farmers to dispose of waste and control the methane -- a greenhouse gas -- produced by decomposing manure.

Digesters seemed like the perfect solution only a few years ago. Manure is fed into a digester, which extracts methane from decomposing organic material, removes impurities and burns it to produce energy.

But many farmers ran afoul of air pollution regulations because their generators emitted nitrogen oxide, or NOx, a component of smog.

Retrofitting digesters with catalytic converters was expensive, costing about $150,000, and put additional strain on the engines that run the systems.

The current generation of digesters has improved technology that should alleviate that concern, experts said.

With those advances in mind, officials are trying to kick-start new projects by turning to a consolidated permitting program on the books since the mid-1990s but never used.

It took the collaboration by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, Cal/EPA and local air and water quality boards to figure out how to permit new digesters.

The goal is to involve all the various permitting agencies in the beginning of the process to ensure there are no surprises later, Cal/EPA's Blue said.

Ray Brewer, president of CH4 Power, drew Koetsier back to the digester concept with the promise of a new, potentially less risky way of doing business: Instead of Koetsier running the operation, CH4 will lease the land where the system will be installed and buy Koetsier's manure.

CH4 technicians will be able to monitor it remotely and will be readily available if it breaks down, Brewer said.

Brewer said he tested his system in other states, such as Wisconsin and Idaho, before shopping it around with California dairy farmers, whom he said were very skeptical.

He eventually signed his first contract with Koetsier -- "Talk about apprehensive," Brewer recalled. "That was a little bit of an understatement."

Brewer's business model, in which farmers lease their land and sell their animals' waste to third-party operators, seemed less of a financial gamble, Koetsier said.

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