The drum beat for renewable energy continues to grow louder throughout North America and Europe. While winds come and go, clouds can place solar panels on pause, and water flowing over dams holds fish at bay, cows work each and every day.
That constant cow power is one of the many reasons that renewable energy entrepreneurs have been making their way to dairy farms across the land.
Renewable natural gas (RNG) projects have become a high ranking priority. Not only do these projects harness methane and carbon previously destined for the atmosphere, the gases captured in these digesters can be scrubbed clean to fuel vehicles that operate on compressed natural gas (CNG). The scrubbing technology has been vastly improved due to efforts capturing gas from landfill projects. In addition, natural gas is far more mobile than electricity generated from digesters that are beholden to the local power grid.
Embarking on a digester project requires careful study. The expertise necessary to run a dairy can be far different than the talent needed to operate a digester. Equally important, a digester can cost as much as the financial outlay for the dairy itself. Hence, many dairy farmers who have embarked upon this endeavor have entered into partnerships with project developers who have connections to astute engineering teams.
The incentives to move forward on green energy are real. By all accounts, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) market is the most established in the world. Oregon has modeled its program after it, and another Pacific Northwest state, Washington, may soon do so.
While a British thermal unit (BTU) of natural gas may fetch $3 in the marketplace, the incentives in California’s LCFS market approach $95, with a dairy cow producing 21 million BTUs per year. Like anything with a great deal of incentives, there is a cap on the availability of the financial support.
Digesters tend to operate more efficiently on larger dairy farms. However, co-digestate such as the organic matter found in unsalable food can go a long way to fueling a digester each day. The remaining substrate from digesters has reduced fertilizer costs for many farmers along with removing phosphorus from the manure.
Like starting an on-farm dairy processing facility, digesters require a great deal of planning, financial resources, and highly trained labor. However, the effort to get a digester up and running just may be worth it.
The European Union has committed 20% of its $462 billion Common Agricultural Policy payments in the next six years to protecting the environment. The U.S. is trending toward a similar commitment As one expert has predicted, green energy from digesters may generate greater returns than the milk itself one day.