The Dark Side of Digesters: Regulatory obstacles curb digesters'' future in California

March 6, 2009 12:02 PM


"We've spent hundreds of hours with lawyers, consultants and staff meetings with the air district just to get our digester permit,” John Fiscalini says.

In February, just days before firing up his dairy's $4 million digester for the first time, California's John Fiscalini is already discouraged. "If I had known then what I know now, I'm not sure I would have built it,” he says.

The Modesto, Calif., dairy producer had hoped to be a successful pioneer in the state's digester implementation, paving the way with a technology that has promised to provide environmental benefits, energy creation and increased revenue streams.

But Fiscalini has encountered one obstacle after another since he began the venture in 2006. He's seen cost overruns drive up expenses for the aboveground, complete-mix digester, initially projected at $1 million.

When the first digester company couldn't deliver what it had promised, Fiscalini had to find another. The project has taken twice as long as he expected. The amount of paperwork, from grants to regulatory agencies to power utilities, has been "huge,” he says.

Perhaps most troublesome, Fiscalini has come up against what he calls the "inflexible requirements” of the regional air and water quality boards.

"Ours is the first dairy to build a digester in California under the new air and water regulations,” says Fiscalini, who milks 1,500 cows and owns an award-winning cheesemaking plant. "I'm the guinea pig. It's been extremely frustrating. We've had to educate regulators. They've been writing rules as they go, and they've continually changed their minds on requirements.”

With half of the digester's cost coming out of his own pocket, Fiscalini doesn't believe he will recoup what he's invested. Generated energy, carbon credits, the compost-quality manure the digester will produce—none will be profitable enough. "I'll get a fairly decent price for the energy the digester generates, but not enough to pay for the project in 20 to 30 years,” he says.

Among California's 1,600 dairies, only 19 digesters have been built or are under construction. It's not likely more will appear in the near future. Those dairy producers like Fiscalini who have installed digesters have learned how hard the project can be.

Other producers, like Jake de Raadt of Lemoore, Calif., have given up and shuttered their digesters, unable to afford to install ever-increasing air district requirements. Still others can't pencil out a way to make biogas injection into natural gas pipelines and other digester factors work.

Dairy digesters are caught "in a bureaucratic bottleneck,” says Michael Marsh, president and CEO of Western United Dairymen.

Allen Dusault, with the nonprofit group Sustainable Conservation, puts it even more bluntly: "Building digesters for dairies in California is a nightmare. In the San Joaquin Valley, digesters are effectively dead.”

One digester hurdle used to be securing a profitable power contract with the state's utilities. For a few years, producers felt they weren't being paid enough by utility companies for the methane-generated energy their digesters produced. But with new California legislation mandating that utilities obtain more power from renewable energy sources, the state's gas and electric companies have been willing to pay more.

Dusault puts the blame for stalled digester progress at the feet of California's regulatory agencies and the state's failure to coordinate them. "The state is working at cross-purposes with itself,” he says.

For example, the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission, which gave Fiscalini a grant to help build his system, have promoted dairy digesters. But the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which oversees the region where most California dairies are located, "is preventing digesters from getting permitted,” Dusault says.

"I am an environmentalist,” he adds. "But they are setting arbitrary rules that are so stringent, we can't build digesters.”

Conflicts exist over the use of internal combustion engines connected with power-generating digesters and acceptable pollution emissions. The air district has set emission standards too high, Marsh says, and it's impossible to find an engine that can comply.

Moreover, he adds, the air district has indicated that if it doesn't see enough reductions in the amount of air emissions from digesters on a voluntary basis, it will consider mandating the technology.

The Central Valley's regional water quality board wants manure-only digesters, preventing dairies from adding other waste to boost methane gas creation and digester revenues.

John Fiscalini's digester system includes two above-ground, complete-mix tanks where methane will be produced from his herd's manure.
Public agencies are not looking at the net benefit of a digester project but only at their own regulatory territory, Dusault says. "Each agency looks at the issue through a narrow lens,” he says. "They claim they're only doing what the requirements tell them to do. What you get is protection of regulations, not the public health or the environment. The result is bad environmental outcomes.

"Agencies need to be held responsible for their decisions, particularly when they don't follow their own process,” Dusault adds. "In this case, they are not. There has to be an over-arching referee, and there is none.”

Marsh still believes digesters offer potential and opportunity. "Digesters can be part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

But first, public agencies must adopt defensible regulations that make sense, he says. Second, the California air board and the San Joaquin Valley air district "must get on the same page,” Marsh says. "Regulatory agencies need a stiff dose of common sense.”

Roy Sharp, a calf raiser and hog producer from Tulare, Calif., has been involved with building several digesters, including three for his own operations. He believes the problem with many digesters is that they're too complicated and not cost-effective.

But even Sharp acknowledges the obstacles of California's regulatory agencies. "Air-quality restrictions and permitting will continue to be a serious problem for digesters,” he says.

A frustrated Fiscalini offers this advice to dairy producers who are considering a digester addition: "Do a lot of homework. I thought I did, but I had no idea how much trouble I'd be greeted with along the way. There is no book to read. Be very, very careful.”


Bonus content:

Read John Fiscalini''s digester permit


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