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Posted on  

March 15, 2002

Manure May Be Used for Electricity

By LINDA ASHTON - Associated Press Writer

FARM SCENE: Energy Northwest, Dairy Farms Considering using Cow Manure to Make Electricity

It's a little bit like the old saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Dairies have given the Yakima Valley an abundance of cow manure, and one day it might be used to make methane to power electric plants.

To that end, Energy Northwest, a public power group that owns the region's only nuclear power plant, is considering teaming up with dairy farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to develop "cow power."

The goal is to build a 3- to 4-megawatt electrical power plant fueled with "biogas," or manure-derived methane.

"We've been working with the dairy industry for 10 to 15 years, trying to solve the manure waste problem," said Ivan White, president of Sunnyside Inc., the economic development group for this central Washington city of 14,000.

Sunnyside, in Yakima County, is one of the locations Energy Northwest is considering, along with northwestern Washington's Whatcom County, Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, and Tillamook, Ore.

Yakima County alone has 85,000 head of dairy cows and tons of manure -- a highly renewable resource.

The Northwest accounts for 8 percent of the nation's dairy farm business.

Current technology makes it possible to get about 0.3 kilowatts of electricity from manure per cow, and in some European studies up to 0.9 kilowatts, said Stan Davison, business development specialist for the Richland-based utility.

One kilowatt is enough to power 10 100-watt lightbulbs.

The manure-to-methane process begins in a big digester tank, which acts as a mechanical stomach. It's filled with a slurry of manure and water, and the bacteria present in the waste turn the manure into methane while thriving in the 130-degree temperatures of the tank.

The methane rises to the top -- it's lighter than air -- and it's piped off to power a modified pair of diesel generators outfitted with spark plugs.

The remaining fiber in the tanks settles to the bottom. Liquid squeezed out of the fiber makes fertilizer and the dry fiber makes compost.

A biomass power plant would need access to a dairy, room to build the plant and access to transmission lines.

"The real issue is high capital costs," Davison said. "If you ignore the capital costs, the fuel is free -- it's a byproduct of milk. It's something you're going to be producing anyway. You might as well handle it as fuel as handle it as waste."

The estimated cost of building such a plant is about $2,800 a kilowatt. Wind power, by contrast, costs about $1,000 per kilowatt.

But on average, a wind farm only produces at 30 percent of capacity over the course of a year, while a cow-powered plant can produce at 90 percent. That virtually evens the costs, Davison said.

"Over the years, there have been a number of people promoting methane digesters. The one thing they're always lacking is capital," said Jay Gordon, a Lewis County dairy farmer and director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, which represents about 650 family dairy farms in the state.

The profit margin is thin, Davison said. So Energy Northwest's next step is to approach utilities to see if there's enough interest in such a project to pay for it.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric is working cooperatively with dairies in Boardman and Salem on digester projects at no cost to the farms, said Joe Barra, director of distributed energy for the utility.



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