Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Herd Management 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.