October 8, 2004


Turning Manure into Black Gold: As oil prices soar, innovative ways of converting livestock waste to fuel, though still in their infancy, could be the new alchemy (Olga Kharif, 10/08/04, Business Week)

Albert Straus's basic philosophy has always been that when life serves you a load of manure, you turn it into something good. Like, well, electricity. At his Straus Organic Dairy Farm in Marshall, Calif., 270 milk cows slowly munching on fresh grass produce about 120 pounds of muck a day. Strauss uses some of it to fertilize his fields. Still, plenty more remains, and its disposal has been expensive and problematic -- until recently, when Strauss began converting the stuff into energy.

In mid-May, he installed a device called a methane digester. The $250,000 system, built partly with government grants, uses bacteria to ferment the waste and produce methane gas. That gas, in turn, generates 1,800 kilowatt hours of energy a day, which is more than twice what the farm uses. It also heats 5,000 gallons of water to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, so the water can be used for cleaning equipment or pasteurizing milk. Better yet, Straus says with a touch of pride, "When you come onto our farm, you can't smell anything at all."

Most self-satisfied gardeners pat themselves on the back for composting kitchen scraps, but a handful of enterprising farmers like Straus are emerging as pioneers in the new era of $50-plus oil. The U.S. alone produces 95 million tons of farm waste a year, according to the Agriculture Dept.

Experts have long viewed such refuse as a promising source of renewable energy. It's too early to say how much power it might produce or how much money it might save. But if the Straus venture is any indication, the discard could certainly turn farms into self-sustaining operations.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 8, 2004 9:58 PM

In 1980, I wrote a paper about how Methanol would save us from "oil dependancy".

15 years later I saw as stat on how much arable land was available to create enough mulch to power our BTU (cars, heat, production, etc.) needs.

Just enough, if the whole human race gives up vegetables forever.

There isn't enough cow poop to do more than make a dent. Though a dent might ameliorate some price spikes.

"Put a cow pie in your tank"

Posted by: BB at October 8, 2004 10:57 PM

It's a great plan for disposing of cow poop, but no answer to the energy crisis. Interestingly, that $250,000 dollar plant is producing just about $100 of electricity per day, pretty much what it would take to pay for itself.

Posted by: mike earl at October 8, 2004 11:09 PM

Do I think it will solve our energy problems? No.

But, it is still creative and useful, even if it is only for this farmer to be a net energy producer. At 250,000 capital investment, it probably pays for itself eventually. But, as this is a pilot project, the price will come down.

We already know how to solve the energy problem -- nuclear plants. We lack the political will to implement it.

Consider, if Oil goes up to 80 dollars, like some are predicting, do you think the political will might exist for nuke power then? Of course, once their built, they are cheaper than oil could ever be and the Saudis loose a big client forever -- could it be why they are particularly desperate to keep the price of oil below 40, even when it seems counter-intuitive.

Posted by: AML at October 9, 2004 1:19 AM

AML: This is no pilot project -- the technology is old: anaerobic digestion of sewage goes back 100+ years, and these type applications have been going on for 30+ years. The problems are the high initial investment/low return, difficulty of operation (many things can sabotage the anaerobic conversion), and the fact that it does not eliminate all waste -- you end up with digested sludge which is not necessarily "safe" (i.e., it still may contain pathogens) and has to be disposed of somehow.

Posted by: jd watson at October 9, 2004 1:57 AM

Including the value of the electricity produced, (at the national average of 6¢ per Kwh), the value of heating 5,000 gallons of water every day, and the depreciation of the system, even if it only runs at 85% efficiency due to the problems that jd watson mentions, this installation ought to pay for itself in 5 - 6 years.


Although there is some merit to what you say, as a society we ought to think long and hard before deciding that it's worth creating wastes that remain toxic for 10,000 years, instead of simply conserving energy, and paying more for less efficient alternative energy schemes.

The new pebble-bed reactors solve a lot of plant-safety issues, but still produce hazardous waste.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 9, 2004 2:45 AM

Whoops, forgot to include the financing costs.

Still, it should definitely reach break-even by the end of year eight, sooner if there are no problems.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 9, 2004 2:51 AM

Michael: The market seems to have decided these issues. Anaerobic treatment was common in the past, but due to the difficulties of operation it has almost totally been replace by aerobic treatment as the technology became available.

Posted by: jd watson at October 9, 2004 4:24 AM

I have to echo jd on this one.

I had a friend that installed one of these systems circa 1980. The theory was that enough energy was produced to power the farm and sell a bit back to the grid, the liquid waste still contained nutrients to be applied to crops, and the separated dry matter could be used for bedding for the cows. However, the difficulty in keeping it operating were never overcome, and the farmer never resouped his investment.

Obviously the technology has improved and can hopefully be applied successfully.

This is a niche solution, but perhaps combined with things like biodiesel and small scale wind and solar it can at least help a bit. Also, the numbers improve as the cost of traditional energy rises.

Posted by: The Other Brother at October 9, 2004 6:04 AM

Maybe Moooveon.org can get behind this project. It's not a whole lot different from what they're already peddling.


Posted by: Mike Morley at October 9, 2004 6:30 AM

Americans used to, and people in many regions of the world still do, burn dried buffalo and other animals' droppings for cooking.

Could one just dry dairy farm cattle manure in a kiln, heated by exhaust gasses, and use the dried waste to power a boiler or turbine to generate electricity ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 9, 2004 6:39 AM

That someone who is obviously interested -- or perhaps pseudointerested -- in this topic can descibe this technology as in its 'infancy' is a better indication of the imbecility of the alternative fuels movement than anything I could devise.

A businessman here is building small, more or less effective biodiesel plants (with technology from the National Energy Lab in Idaho, which, of course, Orrin would close if he had his way) that use french fry oil.

Problem is, there just isn't that much used french fry oil around.

Sort of like our plastics recycling plant, which imports garbage from California for feedstock.


Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 9, 2004 5:52 PM

The figures cited may be inaccurate, as well.

If this farm really does generate 1800 Kwh/day from roughly 100 lbs. of waste, and if the US annually produces about 95 million tons of such waste, then it suggests that we could generate about 85% of all the electricity currently being generated annually in the US from such a method, which doesn't seem possible.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 10, 2004 4:36 AM
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