WisBiz In-Depth: 'Cow Power' Gaining Strength
By Gregg Hoffmann
La Crosse – The Wild Rose Dairy in Vernon Country will soon be producing milk and “cow power.”
Within a couple weeks, a methane gas generator will produce enough electricity to serve more than 600 homes. The project is a cooperative effort between Wild Rose and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
Wild Rose will own the anaerobic digester that processes methane gas from manure. Dairyland will own the generating equipment and buy the methane from the dairy.
This project is the first in southwest Wisconsin, but not the first in the state for Dairyland. In June, Dairyland and Microgy Inc, a subsidiary of Environmental Power Corp., opened a facility at Five Star Dairy in Elk Mound.
That facility is producing about 750 kilowatts of renewable energy, capable of serving around 600 homers. It is being called “cow power.”
“This ‘green’ alliance Dairyland and Microgy have formed is a win-win for energy consumers and the environment. We are very excited to see this first facility begin producing power, and look forward to bringing more digester plants online in the future,” said Dairyland President and CEO William Berg.
Another methane digester project has been started near Barron, Wisconsin. That project, called the NorSwiss Project, is likely to open in October.
“We have five with signed contracts and have identified 18 others that have potential,” said Neil Kennebeck, director of planning services for Dairyland. “We’re concentrating on dairy right now, but will look at pigs and perhaps even poultry in the future.”
Deb Mirasolo, manager of communications for Dairyland, said the La Crosse-based coop, with operations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, has a commitment to methane and other renewable energies.
“Our members have made it clear they want us to pursue renewable energy sources,” she said.
Kennebeck said, “Helping agriculture is what we are all about as a non-profit coop, so this fits nicely. It gives the farmer options in waste management. We buy the gas to produce electricity, the liquid can be used as fertilizer and the solids are used for bedding for the cows.”
Other wastes could possibly be used in methane production. “There’s some blood, guts and gore involved here.” Kennebeck said. “Now, a lot of those wastes go to the pet food industry, but we are looking at possibly mixing some of those wastes with manure.”
The current process also involves waste cooking oil, mixed with the manure, to get temperatures up to 135 degrees during digestion.
Wild Rose is drawing extra attention in the Vernon County area because of a fish kill in Jersey Lake caused by liquid manure runoff this past winter. By converting manure to methane, storage needs are reduced and winter spreading of liquid manure could be cut back.
“That was a tragedy,” Kennebeck said. “Methane projects do give the farmers some ways to reduce their storage.”
In addition to those benefits, methane production addresses other animal waste problems associated with manure disposal on farms. Odor is reduced, and weed seeds and pathogens are killed during the digestion process, thus reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides on the farm.
Landfill Gas To Energy
Cow manure is not the only source of methane being tapped by Dairyland. In 2004, the coop and Eau Claire Energy Cooperative opened the ONYX Seven Mile Creek Landfill gas-to-energy facility in Eau Claire. The three unit, 3 megawatt renewable energy facility is now operational, with the ability to provide electricity to over 2,600 homes.
Dairyland contracted with ONYX Waste Services, Inc., to purchase methane gas collected at the Seven Mile Creek Landfill, a regional collector of residential waste. Dairyland contracted with Ameresco to design, engineer and construct this facility. Dairyland owns the generating equipment and purchases the gas from ONYX, which owns the landfill and is a member of Eau Claire Energy Cooperative.
The environmental benefits are significant. Prior to the facility’s operation, the energy from the methane gas created by the landfill was wasted, and burned off into the atmosphere. Local air quality will benefit, as the gas will now be harnessed as a “green” energy source, co-op spokesmen say. Landfill gas also enables the power generators to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Turning this great renewable energy idea into reality required the cooperation of many people, working together. Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, ONYX, Ameresco and Dairyland staff pursued this opportunity jointly. As a team, we were able to bring this facility online, on-time for Dairyland members,” said Dairyland Project Manager Tony McKimmy.Dairyland also supplies renewable energy to its member distribution cooperatives from its Flambeau Hydro Station near Ladysmith and from participation in two wind farms in southwestern Minnesota.
Other companies are working with methane-produced energy. Alliant buys some methane gas from farmers for electricity. “There are others,” Kennebeck said. “I think the difference with the way we are going it is that we are partners directly with the farmer. We own the generators and they own the digesters.”
Ocean Spray is tapping into methane gas from a nearby landfill in Wisconsin Rapids. Under a partnership between Ocean Spray and Onyx Cranberry Creek Landfill, construction has begun on a one-mile-long pipeline that will carry methane gas to the plant, where it will fuel steam boilers used to energize a cranberry concentrator currently being installed.
With Ocean Spray literally tapping that gas to power its boilers, greenhouse emissions from the landfill will be reduced by nearly 7,000 tons a year, with environmental benefits equivalent to planting 15,000 trees or removing carbon monoxide emissions from 12,000 cars. Ocean Spray also will cut its annual fuel costs by 25 percent.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Michael Stamatakos, vice president of operations for Ocean Spray. “Onyx has pioneered and perfected a process that will provide Ocean Spray an uninterrupted flow of power, allowing us to cut fuel costs and help Wisconsin Rapids reduce its greenhouse gas.”
Ocean Spray and Onyx are investing a combined total of more than $2 million in the project.
“This is the marriage we have all been looking for,” said Todd Watermolen, Vice-President of Engineering for Onyx Waste Services. “The Onyx landfill gas source and Ocean Spray’s local energy needs came together. Ocean Spray and Onyx are a great local match. We have been looking to put a green energy partnership together for years and it will soon be a reality.”
Stamatakos commended Rapids Mayor Gerald Bach as a major proponent of using landfill gas as energy. He also thanked the city and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for their support.
“As a growers’ cooperative, Ocean Spray understands the importance of doing our part to help preserve and, whenever possible, improve the local environment,” said Stamatakos. “As we continue growing as a brand and as
a manufacturer, we must seek out options that are both economical and environmentally-friendly – for the benefit of our grower-owners and the local community.”
State Becoming National Leader
Last year, Gov. Jim Doyle announced that 27 different state agri-businesses would receive $6.26 million – the most of any state in the nation – for renewable energy projects under the USDA’s Rural Development agency. Several of these grants were for planning and development of anaerobic digesters and other methane projects.
These Wisconsin projects are indicative of the growing popularity, especially among cooperatives across the United States. to use landfill methane as a power source. In 2003, at least three states, including Georgia with an annual production of 9 megawatts (MW), began methane-based green power programs.
In South Carolina, Laurens Electric Cooperative in Laurens and Palmetto Electric Cooperative in Ridgeland joined with state-owned utility Santee Cooper to form their green power program. And, just like Tri-County EMC's Green Power program, it uses methane from a landfill to fuel a 3.3-megawatt generator.
The project could reduce the county's methane, a dangerous and flammable gas considered to be 20 to 25 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of greenhouse gas effects.
The popularity of landfill methane continues to grow. A new landfill methane energy projects is also underway in Vermont, where Washington Electric Cooperative is building a 5-MW power plant at a landfill in Coventry.
Landfill methane has always been fairly reasonable in price as the infrastructure needed for power production is already there in the form of pipes and vents that are used to drain and "flare" the gas for safety purposes.
"Now that prices for natural gas are high and likely to stay that way, the methane may see another jump in popularity," says Dan Lieberman, program manager at San Francisco's Center for Resource Solutions.
If these things are true, why haven’t more companies moved to methane earlier? “That’s a good question,” Kennebeck said. “Economics have played a huge role in it. We have to make it cost effective.
“The system we are using was invented in Denmark. They have been using methane there since the mid-'80s. We have worked with them and think it has great potential.”