Is that Stinky Electricity?

I met Pat Rezin about a year ago. I was visiting local businesses to talk about health care reform but Pat wanted to talk manure digesters.

A manure digester is made with a big tank that allows manure to ferment. Methane gas is produced and that gas can be converted to electricity. Whole farms – and whole communities – in Europe are powered with electricity made from cow manure.

Pat had an idea.

He wanted to build a digester small enough to work on Wisconsin’s dairy farms. Most digesters were made for a large farm – over 200 cows. But the average dairy farm in Wisconsin is less than 100 cows.  Pat knew his company’s workers could accomplish his vision.

Pat Rezin is the president and chief executive officer of USEMCO. The company does custom engineering and metal fabrication. Right now the company is focused on building pipes, control stations and tanks for fresh and sewage water. The highly skilled welders Pat hires allows the company diverse capabilities to manufacture products for a specific purpose.

When I first visited USEMCO, I was struck by the workers abilities to create huge tanks from flat sheets of metal. Because of the workers’ skills, the opportunities for diversification were great. If it was metal – they could figure out how to build it – which means the tanks they build could be used to hold manure.

I was also impressed by the tenacity of their leader. Pat is a soft spoken and thoughtful man. But when he laid out the design of his manure digester prototype and told me his story in photos and on his computer, his vision and persistence came through loud and clear.

There were problems in trying to create a manure digester for a medium size farm. And – given the material with which he was working (the manure that is) - the problems were messy. But he didn’t give up.

If one design didn’t work, he tried another and another. If one paddle wasn’t doing its job he’d change it. Over and again, he encountered problems and solved them.

I returned to my office in Madison and kept thinking about Pat and the manure digester. The Legislature is debating how to protect our water; his digester would eliminate the need to spread excess manure on the fields. The Legislature is debating renewable energy; manure is about as renewable as it comes. The Legislature is debating clean energy jobs; his creation would create 15 or 20 new jobs and allow him to add a needed building to his plant. I wanted to find a way to help him make his dream happen. And help all the rest of us on the farm and in the state.

If there is anything I’ve learned in my rookie term as Senator, it is that nothing is easy. Getting the majority of 132 legislators from across the state to agree is like tying to herd barn cats. But Pat’s doggedness in pursuing his project motivated me to do the same.

After months of work on both our parts – with many partners along the way – last Friday I stood on USEMCO’s shop floor; joined by Ag Secretary Rod Nilsestuen and Representative Mark Radcliffe as we announced a $200,000 grant for Pat and his skilled workers to develop and demonstrate an anaerobic digester cost effective for small farms.

With this project, USEMCO will begin a new era in production. Taking Wisconsin home grown ingenuity and working to solve our problems, many more farms will have the ability to take a potential liability – cow manure - and turn it into a source of homegrown, renewable energy.

On my way home, I stopped to chat with one of the shop keepers and told her of the digester project.  “Oh my gosh,” she said. ‘Electricity from cow manure; is that stinky electricity?” I laughed. “Oh, no,” I said. That’s cash for our hard working dairy farmers.”