They are some of the dairy industry’s anaerobic digester pioneers, the innovators who have taken steps—no, leaps—to create renewable energy, better manage manure, produce a steady supply of cow bedding, or simply lessen their dairy’s environmental footprint by reducing air emissions and odor.
|Members of a producer panel discuss their anaerobic digester experiences Oct. 6 at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.
Despite their varied and sometimes difficult digester experiences, all eight members of a panel discussion at World Dairy Expo last week remain advocates of biogas production—and united in their call for a national energy policy that includes more support for manure-generated energy.
"Biogas has far more to add to the national energy grid than wind or solar," said panel member John Vrieze, a Wisconsin dairy producer who has built two digesters since 2005.
"I’ve been a fan of renewable energy for 15 years," Vrieze said. "But it’s going to take more regulatory or economic incentive for power companies to participate with dairies. Too many electric cooperatives don’t cooperate."
Vrieze thought he would reap income from turning his dairy’s biogas into natural gas. But natural gas has fallen from $10 kw/hour to $3, to his disappointment. Now his first digester’s biggest benefit is the manure-based bedding it turns out, while his second digester's current role is providing heat for a nearby greenhouse.
Panel member Mark Jacobs, a Wisconsin dairy producer who put his digester into production nine months ago, said a policy change or more incentive is needed to build more digesters and ensure their viability. "Making biogas is no longer a technical challenge," Jacobs said. "But more resources are needed. We have a policy problem."
"Environmentally, there are lots of good reasons to build digesters," said panel member Lee Jensen. "But building a digester has to be economically feasible. It can be expensive. If you don’t have the equity, you might be better off with more cows or paying down debt."
In 2005, Jensen, also a Wisconsin dairy producer, became one of the first U.S. dairy producers to join with a manufacturer to build an onsite digester. Jensen’s Five Star Dairy also struck an agreement to sell the digester’s biogas to a local energy utility.
But Jensen’s road to renewable energy hasn’t been easy. The digester manufacturer, Microgy, declared bankruptcy last year. Another company has taken over the digester’s operation, and Jensen said his digester "hasn’t missed a beat." Even so, the six-year-old project "has been learning, learning, learning," Jensen said. He added that he was glad he had built his digester, and sees the potential for many more biogas systems in the U.S.
"We could produce more gas, but there’s no incentive without a market," Jensen said. "If our power rates were [as high] as they are in Europe, digesters would be all over."
So why aren’t they?
Wisconsin’s Karl Crave of Crave Brothers Farm, whose family’s aboveground digester became operational in 2007, also said a policy change or more incentive is needed. "Vermont’s the only state that’s doing a good job [with digester incentives]," Crave said.
Perhaps no comment struck me more than one from Mike Geerlings, who, in 2006, built Michigan’s first dairy digester project at his Scenic View Dairy.
"This country would have been better off if all that Solyndra money had gone to digester development instead," Geerlings said. "Solar and wind don’t compare with biogas in cost-per-kilowatt return."
You’ll recall that in the last few weeks, we’ve learned that the U.S. Department of Energy provided a $535 million taxpayer loan guarantee to the solar firm Solyndra, which has since declared bankruptcy.
Renewable energy from wind is only 30% efficient, Geerlings said, while dairy digesters—which operate and produce 365 days a year—offer 90% efficiency. But apparently that fact doesn’t seem to mean much in government energy circles.
"Digesters are black sheep," Geerlings added. "It’s an industry that relies on large animals, so we’re not politically correct."
So, if I understand correctly, we (in the broad national sense) shell out millions to solar and wind companies whose energy reliance isn’t even half of biogas. We fight wars that have at least some connection to our dependence on foreign oil. We throw up roadblocks to digester development, at least in California, with a morass of permitting hurdles in the name of air and water quality concerns.
Why, when energy is so important, don’t more dairies have digesters? It’s a good question.
AgSTAR, a division of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, has obviously given this some thought. It sponsored the World Dairy Expo session, "Straight from Producers: The Real Story on Anaerobic Digestion Systems."
But obviously more—much more—is needed. President Obama, Congress, U.S. Department of Energy, do you have a good answer?