Biogas Pipe Dreams Renewable energy from dairies will flow when utilities sign contracts

March 5, 2009 06:00 PM

A unique effort by a group of New York dairy producers to reduce greenhouse gases while producing biogas, electricity, heat and compressed natural gas is building momentum. The project's developer is currently negotiating with local utilities and other potential purchasers who can demonstrate their commitment to renewable energy by signing long-term contracts.

This commitment is necessary, explains Doug Young, of Spruce Haven Farm and Research Center near Union Springs, N.Y., for the farmers to capitalize the project and start connecting the dots (see map).

Discussions have been ongoing for five years, despite the "Go Green!” clamor that echoes across the country.

"If renewable energy is really a priority in the U.S.,” Young says, "the utilities will cooperate by writing five- to 10-year contracts with collar pricing.” This kind of pricing names floor and ceiling rates in the agreement.

According to Bob Foxen, engineer and private developer working with the dairy producers, at issue is not only the quality and reliability of biogas originated on farms, but also use of the current gas distribution system to "swap” energy to the higher-pressure interstate system. "This has far-reaching national implications,” he explains, "because most dairy farms across the country are not located near interstate pipelines—distribution lines are much more common.”

Furthermore, the opportunity to earn high-value renewable energy credits rests on access to the interstate lines.
The Cayuga County Renewable Energy Project is designed to link several on-farm digesters by underground pipeline. Biogas (60% methane) is delivered by pipeline or truck to a site outside the city of Auburn, N.Y., for scrubbing and processing, while servicing a number of utilities and other consumers with a market basket of possible energy products such as electricity, biomethane, compressed natural gas, hot water and compressed biomethane motor vehicle fuel. The dairy digesters would generate electricity for on-farm use, too.

The project's stated mission is to improve dairy producers' economic performance and protect the environment by optimizing the production and utilization of energy and nutrients from agriculture.

Young likes to simplify it this way: "Cayuga County dairy producers will capture sunlight, turn it into organic matter and deliver it in a number of forms to other customers.”

The groundswell in favor of renewable energy projects is impressive, but improvements in environmental stewardship are costly. New technologies to help producers set and achieve higher standards are being developed all the time, but don't come cheap.

The project represents a unified approach by dairy producers to capture energy now being wasted, control odors, destroy pathogens, preserve and concentrate nutrients, maximize nutrient uptake in growing plants and optimize farm profits.

"The whole scene is changing,” Young says. "It's exciting, but also frustrating. We would like to see renewable energy become more of a national priority.”

Cayuga County, N.Y.'s abundance of dairy cattle—illustrated here by dots sized relative to herd numbers—provides a fertile field for renewable energy research.

Bonus content:

Dairy Farm Sustainablity Checksheet

"Reduce On-Farm Expenses With Simple Adjustments"
-Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy

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