Methane Epilogue: Power from Cows and Castoffs

dig_3944-web.jpgWe have updates from some of the places we visited in our methane series, heard on The California Report. For Part 1 of the series, click here. For Part 2 of the series, click here.

At Fiscalini Farms near Modesto, John Fiscalini says he finally worked out a deal with air regulators that allows him to convert his manure into methane for electric power. His permit from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District allows him to run the engine while he makes adjustments to minimize particulate and nitrous oxide pollutants.

He hopes to be making power by the middle of this month–more than 13 months behind schedule. Capturing the methane, of course, will make a significant dent in the carbon footprint of the farm, which has 3,000 cows (1,500 producing and 1,500 “replacements”).

He also has a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, under which university researchers will install equipment to monitor the methane operation. Fiscalini says they’ll “monitor everything we can possibly monitor” and gather data to make better judgments about the efficiency and economic feasibility of methane digesters. He’s having some doubts about the economic feasibility of his own. Now, he says, water quality regulators want him to do $40,000 worth of environmental assessments, including a hydro-geologic survey and a study of his waste stream (he uses leftovers from the methane digester for fertilizer).

You may recall that we started Part One at an unidentified landfill, to explain how methane is produced and captured, and why flaring it off is better than letting the methane escape into the atmosphere. I later heard from Jessica Jones, district manager for Waste Management, which runs the Redwood Landfill and Recycling Center in Marin County, the location where I did the recording. While the landfill currently flares off its collected methane, Jones wanted us to know about some of the company’s efforts to harness that gas–potentially enough to power 4,000-5,000 homes. In an email to KQED, she wrote:

“Redwood Landfill is currently working to permit a landfill gas to energy facility which will become Marin County’s largest source of green power.  Altamont Landfill in Alameda County currently has landfill gas to energy production through the use of internal combustion engines and turbines, and is beginning construction of a liquefied natural gas facility which will convert landfill gas into a clean burning fuel which can be used to power Waste Management’s refuse collection fleet.  This type of fuel is estimated to be potentially the closest to carbon neutral of any fuel being developed today.”

There’s more about Redwood’s landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) project at the company’s website. In echoes from our conversations with John Fiscalini, Jones writes on the site that there are “regulatory hurdles” to be cleared before this can happen. Sound familiar?

Photo: Stinky silage; Methane digester tanks will soon power the Fiscalini dairy farm.

Methane Epilogue: Power from Cows and Castoffs 1 February,2009Craig Miller

3 thoughts on “Methane Epilogue: Power from Cows and Castoffs”

  1. I believe these types of recapturing technologies represent the future direction of the private sector and applaud the efforts of Mr. Fiscalini and Ms. Jones.

    My hope is that the costs of complying with the many regulatory hurdles, which are particularly onerous in California, can be offset by government subsidies. The role of government is critical in supporting existing businesses in transitioning to new methods of production that reduces carbon emissions, creating renewable energy and lowering our demand upon the electric grid.

    Chris Ripps
    Environmental Paralegal

  2. Methane production from landfills is probably the worst possible way (in terms of carbon footprint) of producing methane. The strange claim of carbon neutrality requires ignoring how the material got to the landfill to begin with.

    Unfortunately, the status of such landfills as large profit centers for corporations like WMI means that landfill methane capture becomes a form of greenwashing that helps justify continued landfill use (as contrasted to what are now the 5 Rs of reduction, reuse, recycling, rot and redesign). Adding such facilities ceases to make economic sense unless a steady flow of methane-generating material (mainly greenwaste) can be assured into the future.

    We need to get away from the waste/landfill paradigm, but if past experience is any guide we can be confident that WMI and similar entities will continue to spend their public relations budgets trying to keep that from happening.

  3. What about the idea that these methane digesters actually encourage consolidation in the industry because they only are economically viable for large herds?

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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