That is a matter dear to the hearts of farm state interests, who see ethanol as a boon to corn prices and also a viable alternative to expensive petroleum-based fuel additives.
But ethanol is NOT the only alternative energy source produced in rural America. Dairy farmers in Oregon are working with nearby communities to capture methane for municipal needs ... and at the same time convert waste into energy. David Miller explains.
In 1999, the Port of Tillamook Bay, a municipal district covering three towns in Tillamook County, moved forward on a more than 10-year-old plan to use the manure as a source for, among other things, power generation. The plan, known as the Methane Energy and Agricultural Development project, or MEAD, would capture the methane from the manure and return the liquid slurry to the farmer.
Jack Crider, General Manager, Port of Tillamook Bay: "And so the Port stepped into this, so to speak here, about almost five years ago. And with a little different concept, smaller facilities, centrally located around the dairies and a simpler process... And this whole thing was to actually test the concept and to actually create a template that we could continue to replicate."
To get the project started, the Port pooled its money with the local Public Utility District, the Oregon State Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the members of the Tillamook Creamery Cooperative to cover the $2.5 million construction bill. In 2003, the Tillamook Biogas Facility opened for business.
The manure is trucked from nine area dairies to the manure digester at the Port's 1600-acre industrial park, a former World War Two blimp base. The facility is comprised of four cells that are 25-feet wide, 160-feet long, and 12-feet deep. Each cell holds almost 400 thousand gallons. Even with only two cells operating, 1.2 million gallons of effluent from 2,000 local cows goes through the facility every month.
Once the liquid manure has been through a 20-day anaerobic cycle it is returned to the producer to be applied on nearby pastures. The resulting methane gas is used to fire two electric generators that produce enough energy to power 160 homes.
The Port leverages the output from the digester to do more than generate electricity. During the past year, the two operating cells have produced 35,000 yards of fiber-byproducts. Some of these solids are added to the 50,000 yards of animal waste and bedding being composted as part of a different Port project next door.
But not all of the fiber can be processed this way. Crider and his staff are working on an easier method of drying and composting this product. If all goes according to plan, the additional $500,000 needed to start the other cells will be raised. The resulting gas produced by the third cell will be used to dry the fiber, making it easier to handle.
The Port sells its investment in alternative energy as "green tags", an Oregon program where monetary credit is given for the use of renewable energy sources. The group also has begun work on an arrangement to sell CO2 credits.
Bob Coppini, a local dairy farmer, gladly joined the other eight producers who send the manure from their dairy operations to the biogas facility. Coppini's 400 cows are providing a portion of the fuel for the generators just down the hill. When the truck fills up, another 4,000 gallons of manure is sent to the digester. The truck comes for another load almost every other day.
Bob Coppini, Bob-Cat Holsteins: "No, it makes sense to me. They take the manure, bring me back the nutrients that I need for the grass. So, it's a win-win deal."
When the manure comes back up the hill from the digester it's ready for application to Coppini's fields. It is free of pathogens and the solids that clog up his manure spray guns and, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, can be applied at three times the rate of unprocessed manure.
At first, the slurry was transported for free but now every farmer pays 25 percent of the cost.
Jack Crider, General Manager, Port of Tillamook Bay: "You know, the transportation issue is huge. It's about 80 percent of the cost of the operation. The farther you are away from the source, the more expensive the project is."
Even with a $400 a month tipping fee, Coppini still believes in the project.
Bob Coppini, Bob-Cat Holsteins: "Yeah, and the cost of setting up that deal, well they took all the cost on and all I'm paying is the little bit of tipping fee. And like I say, I'm not taking all the solids and I'm getting back what I need to grow grass. So, it's pretty tough to go wrong."
From a business standpoint, the Tillamook Biogas Facility has at least broken even most of the past year.
Jack Crider, General Manager, Port of Tillamook Bay: "The port has been having to subsidize this project this last year and we'd like to get to the point where it's fairly neutral and it's not costing us anything. But we're not quite there yet."
As the third cell is being readied for use, Crider remains cautiously optimistic about the future. If successful, the digester could play a key role in sustaining life on dairy farms and in the estuaries of the Northwest.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.