From poo to power

  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 Smith.

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 local communities.”

The author is an intern at High Country News.
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