Big concrete cows produce energy and benefit the enviroment

Kaelen Brodie, Climate Solutions Harvesting Clean Energy | May 2012

Kevin MaasKevin Maas, President of Farm Power Northwest, feels a sense of accomplishment looking out at the construction of his newest anaerobic digester in Enumclaw, Washington. Farm Power currently has two operating digesters in Washington, one in Lynden and one in Rexville; the third, Rainier Biogas in Enumclaw, will soon be online. While Maas’ excitement of firing up the first digester has subsided, his enthusiasm for his work has not.

Kevin Maas, from Lynden, Washington, created Farm Power’s business plan as his final project before graduating with an MBA from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. He and his brother Daryl, who joined Kevin in 2007 after a tour with the Air Force and currently serves as Farm Power’s CEO, were inspired by a strong desire to help struggling dairy farmers.

Kevin and Darryl explain their model, “Our goal is to build manure digesters that will serve as many Pacific Northwest dairy farms as possible. Most western Washington and Oregon dairy farms are too small to build their own digesters and successfully market the products. That’s where we come in. Farm Power works with groups of dairy farmers to design regional digesters that serve multiple farms. We design the project, raise the funds to make it happen, and operate the digester to make it profitable. We do not ask for any money from farmers and we don’t sell them anything.”

Farm Power is expanding into Oregon. The first of two anaerobic digesters is slated to begin processing manure this month from approximately 2,000 cows from Tillamook, Oregon dairies. The digesters are expected to generate one megawatt of energy, which is enough to power 650 to 700 homes every year. It is the culmination of much hard work for all the parties involved, including the Tillamook People’s Utilities District, Martin Dairy LLC, Farm Power Northwest LLC and the people from USDA’s Rural Development Office.

In an anaerobic digester, manure and other organic waste is heated in an airtight tank to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—approximately the same temperature as a cow’s belly—until the bacteria begin to feed on the proteins and fats in the manure. The manure is broken down into sugars, hydrogen and acetic acid and, eventually, transformed into methane gas. The gas can be captured and burned in a generator to create electricity. That electricity can then be sold to power utilities like Puget Sound Energy (PSE). According to Wisconsin Focus on Energy, a good rule of thumb is that manure from approximately five Holstein milking cows supplies fuel for one-kilowatt of energy.

For farmers, the attraction to digesters is multifaceted, although the number one benefit is that farmers can use the fiber left over after the process is finished for bedding. This could benefit farmers up to $100,000 per year. In addition, farmers enjoy reduced odor and sanitized liquid fertilizer for the ground.

When talking to farmers, Kevin Maas knows that the economic model is the most important selling point. Farmers want to know that the project they are participating in will save them money and allow them to remain on the lush farmland that has supported their family, in some cases, for generations. That is not to say that the environmental benefits are unimportant. Andrew Werkhoven, of Werkhoven Dairy Inc. in Monroe, attempts to debunk the myth that farmers don’t care about the environment. Farmers are “some of the most competent stewards you’ll find,” he says.

Funding and Permits
For Farm Power, finding an economic model was extremely challenging. Farm Power needs three to four million dollars in upfront capital to build the project. In Germany, utility companies pay two to three times more for renewable energy than they do in the United States in order to fund alternative energy projects. Utility companies often pass higher costs to customers in the form of higher energy prices. Such a model is not possible in the United States because people are unlikely to pay such a premium, says Kevin Maas.

For the digesters projects that he currently runs, Maas received funds from diverse sources. The first ten to twenty percent came from individual private investors and a large portion came from bank loans guaranteed by the United States Department of Agriculture. Additional funding came in the form of grants from, among others, the USDA Rural Energy for America Program.

Unfortunately, when asked whether this model of funding is sustainable in the long run Maas has a one-word reply: “No.” This is because money from the government has dried up in the current economic climate; no one has a dime for anaerobic digester projects.

Unfortunately, this austerity has put a crimp in the plans to expand and build more sustainable projects. Organizations like Climate Trust, based out of Portland, and Native Energy are looking at all possible ways of creating new solutions to the problem of how to build projects—such as anaerobic digesters—that require immense upfront capital.

Ebay, Stonyfield Farm, Brita and Effect Partners all agreed to buy Native Energy’s carbon offsets to help fund the Rainier Farm Biogas project in Enumclaw. According to Native Energy’s website, carbon offsets work by allowing companies to invest in projects that will provide alternative energy in order to offset their own carbon emissions.

Justin Davis, who is the project manager for Farm Power’s Rainier Farm Biogas Project, says there is great momentum for these projects. “King County really wants to see Farm Power grow and be successful.”

Davis has been coordinating between the engineers, farmers, the King County Department of Development and the King County Conservation District to make sure that everything goes smoothly. “There’s times where communication lacks consistency because they [the parties] don’t always talk to each other.”

Part of the difficulty is that a similar project has never been attempted in King County before now, which is further complicated by so many new rules and guidelines. “State regulatory laws and codes play a large role in these projects to remain viable,” says Davis. However, he believes that all the people involved are helpful and passionate about the project.

Environmental benefits
More than a billion tons of manure is produced each year by livestock in the United States and often it is left to decompose aerobically, which releases methane and other pernicious greenhouse gasses. Methane is twenty one times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and so its reduction could be part of the solution to the problem of the “greenhouse effect.” In addition, if the manure creeps into ground water it can become a dangerous pollutant for nearby rivers or streams. If the waste is passed through a macerator to achieve uniformity of size and then tossed into the digester, it is prevented from slipping into the rivers.

I-937 passed by the voters of Washington State in 2006 requires utilities with more than 25,000 members (of which there are 17 in Washington State) to meet energy efficiency standards as well as a separate renewable energy standard. In 2012, 3% of energy must be renewable. In 2012, the requirement is 9% and in 2020 it is 15%. PSE is currently very close to meeting the 2020 requirement; although digesters are not a significant portion of their green energy portfolio (wind farms are much more productive), they are important to PSE and the local economies in which they exist.

According to Thomas F. MacLean, manager of PSE’s Customer Renewable Energy Program, PSE offers a standard fixed contract for renewable energy sources that produces up to five megawatts. “This helps them [Farm Power and farmers] with their business modeling because they know exactly what they will be paid.”

Qualco Energy
Three unlikely partners conceived Qualco Energy in 2003: Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, the Tualilip Energy Corporation and Northwest Chinook Recovery. Trust between the parties developed over a period of several years through working together to expand fish habitat and promote riverbank restoration. Each party expressed an interest in participating in a larger project and so Qualco Energy was formed to manage the new anaerobic digester at Werkhoven Dairy Inc., in Monroe, Washington.

Andy and Jim WerkhovenAndrew Werkhoven and his team run the anaerobic digester at Werkhoven Dairy. The profits from selling of carbon credits and tipping fees go to the non-profit, Qualco Energy. Werkhoven Dairy also contributed a half million dollars to creating the digester, recouping their investment in less than four years.

Recently, Werkhoven Dairy was honored with the Elanco Award for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability by the Innovation Center for U.S Diary. Werkhoven went to Washington, D.C. with a “sense of pomp and circumstance,” but came away thoroughly impressed. “Processors and end users, everybody is stepping to the plate and talking about how you define sustainability; [it] has to have [a] social, environmental and economical impact. It’s a big deal and I’m excited and proud. I have to own all the issues. I have to worry about water. It’s kind of cool when you have Starbucks and McDonalds talking about issues that are way beyond competition.”

The Qualco Energy project is unique because agricultural, environmental, and tribal interests all intersected in an effort to protect farmland and the environment. “When you get all three groups in a room, you find that you have a lot in common,” Werkhoven says. He has high hopes that diverse interests will collaborate more often on these types of positive, productive projects.

Qualco Energy gensetThe next step for Werkhoven Dairy is finding a way to burn and convert excess methane into electricity. There are several options available, including selling the methane to nearby Monroe Correctional Complex for their steam boiler.

Werkhoven Dairy must consider other options besides adding another generator because electricity prices are going down due to an overabundance of shale-driven natural gas; thus making a large investment isn’t prudent. Adding another generator would cost upwards of one million dollars, according to MacLean of PSE, and Werkhoven Dairy would also have to upgrade their interconnection to the electrical grid. However, there is no doubt that Werkhoven will find a way to profit from the excess methane.

It isn’t clear how long digesters will be technologically up to date, as change can occur so rapidly in the alternative energy industry. Such innovation is making alternative energy projects more profitable and practical all over the world. Here in the Northwest, anaerobic digesters are making a significant difference today and it is inspiring to see passionate people committed to farmland-saving innovation; thus empowering farmers to make their own contribution to long-term stewardship of their farms and the planet.


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