Cow Poop Is the Secret Ingredient for Clean Electricity at This California Dairy Farm

23rd January, 2022.      //   Climate Change  // 

cow poop

Fertilizer, building material, and even a secret component in Ancient Egyptian ceramics have all proven to be useful. Cattle dung, the stinking waste that also creates the deadly greenhouse gas methane, may have a bright future as a reliable source of renewable energy.

Bar 20 Dairy, a dairy farm near Kerman, California, is a great example of a prospective future that harnesses methane from cow manure to generate clean electricity with almost no carbon emissions. It’s the first dairy farm in the United States to use biogas to power its own “microgrid” of clean electricity, and it could provide a glimpse into the future of green energy for firms with plenty of methane.

It’s not difficult to grasp the technology. The farm’s approximately 7,000 cows’ manure and waste water are carried and sorted into a digester, a 25-million-gallon rectangular pit in the earth. Methane gas rises to the top of the closed digester after the liquid has sat for roughly 30 days. The methane is subsequently separated from hydrogen sulfide and other contaminants by piping it into a skid shifter. Finally, the methane is fed into fuel cells, which use it to generate power while emitting very little carbon dioxide.

“It’s where the Central Valley meets Silicon Valley,” N added. California Bioenergy’s CEO, Ross Buckenham, oversees the operation and construction of manure digesters, including the one utilized by Bar 20 Dairy.

It is not a novel idea to generate power from cow dung (or other agricultural wastes like hog manure) or other agricultural wastes. Dairy farms from Vermont to Wisconsin have been producing small-scale bioenergy for at least 15 years, producing enough electricity to power a few hundred households and probably more than enough to keep a large farm afloat.

The problem is that most of these places use a combustion engine to run the processes that actually make electricity. The green benefits that come from finding a new use for waste are basically wiped out by the greenhouse gasses these engines pump into the air.

This is where fuel cells lend a helping hand, since they don’t spew out carbon dioxide as a byproduct when running the methane-to-electricity reactions. Bar 20 Dairy uses solid oxide fuel cells made by San Jose-based company Bloom Energy. They consist of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte that’s sandwiched between two interconnected plates. As methane flows through the anode side and air passes through the cathode side, it causes a chemical reaction in the electrons which produces electricity, with practically zero carbon dioxide byproduct.

The result is a self-sustaining, clean energy microgrid: something Bar 20 Dairy’s Steve Sheheady and his family have been trying to establish for years.

Sheheady, whose grandfather started Bar 20 Dairy, told The Daily Beast the farm’s microgrid (bolstered by solar panel arrays) is running better than expected. The fuel cell system, which started operating in October, is expected to produce about 8.5 million kilowatt-hours of power per year, which is equivalent to powering over 750 homes, according to Bloom. Right now, the farm is basically making more power than it’s able to use. Excess power is put back into the local utility’s grid and is used for electric cars charging, according to Sheheady.

“We used to joke about how funny it would be if we could make more money off the poop than the milk,” Sheheady said. “And now we’re essentially here.”

Farms, private firms, health-care facilities, and university campuses are all spending millions to get in on the microgrid movement, lured by the prospect of reducing their energy costs and relying less on local utilities (which have battled chronic power outages due to natural disasters and aging infrastructure). And it’s a worldwide phenomenon: Market intelligence firm Guidehouse Insights estimates that spending on microgrid technology and equipment will reach $110.5 billion globally by 2030. In the U.S., microgrids especially make sense for groups operating in states like California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York, where electricity rates have skyrocketed.

And of course, the sluggish movement by world governments to combat climate change means private parties are willing to forge ahead on their own to find clean, sustainable sources of energy.

This is especially true in California, which has been pushing industries like agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 2006. Although carbon dioxide emissions grab headlines, methane is 80 times worse for global warming over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide. About 40 percent of all methane emissions are from the agricultural sector.

Bloom’s fuel cell installations, which have been purchased by Home Depot, Morgan Stanley, and Caltech, have largely run on natural gas, which burns relatively clean but still results in plenty of greenhouse gas emissions. The company is very excited to finally see its technology being used in a clean energy project like Bar 20 Dairy’s. Sharelynn Moore, Bloom’s executive vice president, told The Daily Beast that the firm also recently started operating a microgrid project for a Silicon Valley firm that is getting methane from a nearby landfill. It is also in talks with several waste and water management companies to tap methane from their treatment facilities to turn into electricity.

“We’re on the cusp of really changing how energy is delivered,” said Moore. As more states mandate the use of green electricity from renewables like solar, wind, and hydro, Moore is hopeful the company’s fuel cell servers can help close the loop.

Bar 20 Dairy in Kerman, California owns about 7,000 cows. The methane from bovine excrement is used to power fuel cells, which produces clean electricity.

Bar 20 Dairy in Kerman, California owns about 7,000 cows. The methane from bovine excrement is used to power fuel cells, which produces clean electricity.

As with many climate change solutions, however, high costs will bar many people from these kinds of projects. Bar 20 Dairy has spent about $12.5 million on its fuel cell system and digester. Sheheady said he received a $3 million grant from the state of California and has applied to receive a $2.4 million rebate. The rest came from a bank loan. It helps that Sheheady’s dairy farm is large, as not all farms will necessarily have access to the same avenues to raise that kind of capital.

Several other California dairies are interested in creating their own renewable energy microgrid after Bar 20 Dairy’s fuel cell system’s early success. Several companies have already contacted California Biogas about establishing the necessary infrastructure and taking control of their own energy needs.

Sheheady remarked, “If you want to be in the dairy business, you can’t just deal with cows anymore because the costs are so expensive.” “This may be a good technique to save milk.”

Talk about milking a cow to the fullest extent possible.

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