Cow Power Not Cutting It

New solar panel technology being tested at Stanford University. (Courtesy of Nick Melosh)

Last year, as part of a radio series on methane, I drove down to visit John Fiscalini, who was building a huge methane “digester” to convert his cows’ “byproducts” into clean energy, and reduce the carbon footprint of his sizable dairy farm and cheese factory outside Modesto.  After millions of dollars in design and construction costs, Fiscalini was fed up with state air and water regulators, who he felt were pulling him in different directions. A year later, have things improved? Not so much, as Quest’s Lauren Sommer found out, when she returned to the San Joaquin Valley for an update. — Craig Miller

Three years ago, KQED’s QUEST visited a Central Valley dairy that was taking an innovative approach to its waste problem. Instead of collecting thousands of pounds of cow manure in open holding ponds, Joseph Gallo Farms uses it in a renewable energy technology known as a methane digester.

Methane gas is a natural byproduct of cow digestion. It’s produced as bacteria inside their stomaches break down food. That process continues on the back end (so to speak) as cow manure decomposes.

Methane is also a powerful contributor to climate change – about 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide. The UN has estimated that 18 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide come from livestock.  (Last year, Climate Watch reported on methane and it sources in this two-part radio series.)

By capturing methane, dairy digesters keep it out of the atmosphere. But they also create a source of renewable energy. Methane is a natural gas — it can be burned just like propane. So, Gallo Farms pipes the methane over to a generator, which produces enough electricity to run the farm and their cheese plant.

Since our visit, the story has taken an interesting turn. Both Gallo Farms and another dairy with a digester, Fiscalini Farms, are located in the San Joaquin Valley, an area with some of the worst air quality the country. The air district is consistently considered in “non-attainment,” which means they aren’t meeting the federal limits on air pollution.

While both dairies’ digesters are reducing one kind of pollution, greenhouse gases, they’re actually adding to another kind. Generators, like any other combustion engine, produce nitrous oxide pollution – or NOx – which is a component of smog. Given the smog problem in the valley, the local air district decided to put a pollution limit on the dairy digester generators.

Since then, both dairies have struggled to meet to the limits. Unlike pipeline-quality natural gas, the methane (or biogas) that comes from a digester varies in quality, which affects how much pollution is produced in the generator’s exhaust. John Fiscalini of Fiscalini Farms has spent $200,000 on a pollution control device that reduces NOx pollution. But he says it’s been a challenging process and he’s concerned that other dairies have been discouraged by his experience with regulators.

For more on Fiscalini’s story and more about the challenges facing dairy digesters, check out this week’s QUEST radio story.

Cow Power Not Cutting It 2 February,2018Lauren Sommer

One thought on “Cow Power Not Cutting It”

  1. It is too bad they didn’t choose a solid-oxide or molten-carbonate fuel cell instead of an internal combustion engine to generate electricity from methane. That would be more efficient and produce no pollution, though it probably costs more.

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Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter formerly covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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