Sep 19, 2014
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RSS By: Jim Dickrell, Dairy Today

Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.

Dairy’s Biogas Roadmap to Where?

Aug 11, 2014

The goals are laudable, but the reality on the ground is more sobering.

On August 1, the White House released its Biogas Opportunities Roadmap designed to promote biogas production on dairy farms that also incorporates mountains of institutional and consumer food waste that now is landfilled.

The dream is to tie country and city together to generate energy, reduce methane emissions, lessen the burden on landfills, save costs and create revenue along the way.

The "Roadmap" has the support of both the National Milk Producers Federation and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The goals are laudable: To help reduce the dairy industry’s contribution of greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020.

Last year, the Innovation Center released a study that suggests what’s good for the environment also could be good for farmer’s pocket books. The study suggests there is $2.9 billion in on-farm revenue potential for anaerobic digesters that co-digest cow manure and food waste.

But the reality on the ground is more sobering. Even Tom Gallagher, CEO of The Innovation Center and Dairy Management, Inc., acknowledges "the landscape is littered with [biogas] failures." Over the past 20 years, farmers have been sold equipment that was not easy, if not impossible, to sustainably operate. Then there were the failed business arrangements and the often temporary, subsidized utility "green" programs that soon disappeared along with economic viability.

"Like other new technologies, there were a lot of failures," Gallagher says. But he also points to Europe where biogas production is no longer viewed as experimental or risky. "There are 7,000 digesters in Germany," he says.

The White House initiative is meant to jump start all that here. According to the Aug. 1 press release, the Biogas Roadmap will:

• Foster investment in biogas systems: USDA will lead efforts to better understand and track the performance of anaerobic digesters, seek opportunities to broaden financing options, and review Federal procurement guidelines.

  • Strengthen markets for biogas systems and system products: Example-- dairy farms of all sizes could enhance their revenues through nitrogen and phosphorus recovery.
  • Improve communication and coordination: USDA will establish a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap Working Group, with a goal to identify and prioritize policies and technology opportunities by August 2015.
  • Promote biogas use through existing agency programs: Leveraging existing programs will provide a way to enhance the use of biogas systems in the U.S., and leveraging research funding, and strengthening programs that support the use of biogas for clean energy, transportation fuel, and other bio-based products.

Gallaher adds that having the White House behind this initiative will put methane digestion on equal footing with other green technology such as wind and solar. That support is critical with the investor community. With the Federal government now behind biogas, private investors are more likely to invest in biogas research, development and infrastructure as they have with wind and solar, he says.

Let’s hope Gallagher is right. Most dairy farmers I talk with are highly skeptical that methane digestion will ever be a viable option. There simply has been too many equipment and energy agreement failures for them to think otherwise.

For this to work, USDA, the Department of Energy or somebody will have to demonstrate biogas is a viable, long term solution. I’m willing to go anywhere, any time to report on biogas success stories. Too often, though, these promising leads turn into failure and disappointment.

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COMMENTS (2 Comments)

Triumph181 - San Jose, CA
Jim, this actually the best time in the universe to install a digester if you live in California at least. You just have to play the game and see how best to get what you need. We tell our customers a number of things before settling on a technology, a site, partners and builders. You can get digesters that remove ammonia before methane and sell off the fertilizer, we have a bulder who can provide 85% loan guarantees on the project at 2% for 18 years. We tell them the first stop is the local community to see about waste management, we advise them not to burn the methane but to install an inexpensive CNG unit, the returns higher and you do not have to deal with the local utility. We are even looking at a simple FT unit that will convert the methane into diesel fuel.As I said the times have never been better for the savvy buyer.
6:02 PM Aug 12th
farmideas - WHITLAND
Hi Jim - what a v useful Biogas story. Here in the UK there's government enthusiasm and a wide number of suppliers. I reported on one in Practical Farm Ideas (Vol 22 Issue 3) designed by a dairy farmer. They did a huge amount of research and have fixed some of the main problems - silt which builds up in the digester; agitation; foaming. They get a very high duty cycle on the plant which, with the present subsidy has a high return on capital. In conclusion I see biogas as a viable technology which will continue post the subsidy period, as energy prices, in Europe at any rate, remain high.
7:17 AM Aug 12th

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