Poop. That’s what powers Bartertown, the violent setting of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the 1985 post-apocalyptic movie. Beneath the crime-ridden city, one man controls the seething, stinky pig-manure pit from which electricity is generated -- and he can shut off the power at will.
Fortunately, that’s not the pattern for biofuel these days.
Instead, the methane produced by animal waste is captured and
converted to an energy source, using recovery systems that trap the
gas and transmit it to an electric generator or a boiler. And in
many Western states, some of the largest producers of animal waste
— dairies — are working with businesses to provide
natural gas to utility companies.
The 5,000-cow Vintage
Dairy in Riverdale, Calif., is such an example. The dairy announced
on March 4 that it will be the first dairy in the state to supply
methane to Pacific Gas & Electric Company, beginning in the
next two weeks. BioEnergy Solutions, which has partnered with
Vintage, pays for the equipment that will turn manure into money.
Under the contract with PG&E;, BioEnergy and Vintage will
provide enough biogas to power 1,200 homes in the Fresno area. The
company will share proceeds from the gas sales and California
carbon credits with the dairy. “One of the reasons
we’re pursuing biofuel is because it’s something our
customers expect and demand,” said PG&E; spokesman Jeff
Cost-effective biofuel systems will motivate other
dairies to participate in production, says David Albers, president
of BioEnergy. “We’ll go to a dairy that’s
interested in getting involved with biofuel capability and we
design a system that fits that dairy,” says Albers, a
third-generation dairyman. He sees such partnerships as a series of
cooperatives that benefit both dairies and the environment.
A similar arrangement exists in Ruskin, located in
southern Idaho. Intrepid Technology and Resources Inc. is working
with the Whitesides Dairy and Intermountain Gas to provide methane
gas to consumers. “The attitude toward biofuel is a little
different in Idaho,” says Jake Dustin, Intrepid’s
president, with a laugh. “There’s been a lot of
skepticism, and electricity is pretty cheap here anyway because of
the availability of hydropower in the Northwest.” Still, he
sees things changing. On March 5, Intrepid announced a contract
with a local industrial customer near the Whitesides Dairy. The
company will purchase manure-derived methane to replace propane.
Currently, methane costs $8 per million BTUs, compared to $25 per
million BTUs for propane.
“Up until even six months
ago, some people thought we were nuts,” Dustin says.
“But in the end, it’s all worth it. Local power helps
The author is an
intern at High Country News.