Thursday, May 20, 2004

270 cows generating electricity for farm

270 cows generating electricity for farm
Methane digester also breaks down waste

Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004

After 25 years of persistent work, Marin County rancher Albert Straus has figured out a way to run his dairy farm, organic creamery and electric car from the manure generated by his herd of 270 cows.

Cheered on by a small gathering of engineers, environmentalists and fellow farmers, Straus stepped into a utility shed Thursday, switched on a 75- kilowatt generator, then stepped outside to snip the ribbon spanning a spanking-new electrical panel.

On the panel, an electricity meter began running backward, indicating that power originating from a nearby poop-filled lagoon near the town of Marshall was feeding into PG&E's electric power grid.

"Well," said Straus, with an understated shrug, "that was exciting."

But for Straus, as well as for many of the spectators, switching on the farm's new $280,000 methane digester system was not just a personal milestone -- it signaled an environmental breakthrough for the state's dairy industry.

While the technology for farm-based methane production has been around for two decades, economics and resistance from the utility industry have prevented all but a handful of California farmers from transforming their animal waste into energy.

While there are 1,950 commercial dairies in operation in California -- which leads the nation in the production of milk and cheese -- and nearly 2 million dairy cows, Straus' methane digester is only the fifth now operating in the state.

But thanks to two pieces of recent legislation, 13 additional methane systems are now under construction, and renewable-energy advocates predict that scores more are sure to follow. The Straus project is the first of 14 methane projects to receive matching funds from the California Energy Commission, one result of the rolling blackouts that plagued the state during the summer of 2001.

"There was an emergency session (of the state Legislature) to create fixes to the energy problem," said Mike Marsh, president of Western United Dairymen. "One thing they funded was renewable energy in the form of methane digesters."

A $10 million pool of matching funds for farmers wishing to install methane digesters was created that year, followed in 2003 by a law allowing utilities to set up "net metering" agreements with small biogas generators.


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