Keeping the Lights on with Cow Manure

“Imagine a way to take cow manure and turn it into electricity. Imagine taking a something we need to get rid of on the farm and turning it into something that makes money. Imagine a way to create manufacturing jobs in Western Wisconsin and keep our environment clean.”

This is message I brought to several hundred dairy farmers gathering in Madison this past week. I know it sounds like science fiction, but it is a real world technology that has a lot of people excited.  It’s called anaerobic digestion .

We have a lot of cows in Wisconsin- about 1.3 million of them and they generate a lot of manure.  Managing that manure is often a challenge for farmers.  Some dairy farmers have discovered installing anaerobic digesters on their farms is a whole new way to deal with their cow manure.

An anaerobic digester is an air tight, container fed an organic material like cow manure. Microbes break down the manure and make methane gas.  The gas can be delivered through pipelines to heat homes.  More often it is used to power an on-farm generator and the farmer sells the electricity back to the power company.

The technology is not new. It has been used in Europe for several years. The number of digesters has grown steadily since 1992 and it at about 4,000.

Wisconsin leads the nation with 22 on-farm digesters. But we are no where near our cousins across the ocean.

The problem in the U.S. is the rate utility companies pay for this electricity changes.  Sometimes it is below the cost of production and doesn’t cover the farmer’s cost of building and maintaining the manure digester. 

And digesters are a big investment that isn’t practical for smaller farmers.

Germany and several U.S. states have found an answer. The idea is to set a uniform rate the utility pays for small scale renewable energy. The steady rate helps farmers plan and encourages investment in the digesters. This strategy is sometimes known as a Renewable Energy Buyback Program .

If we can encourage farmers to build digesters, it will also mean a lot of new jobs at companies that construct and install digesters.  Many of the Wisconsin based companies that make stainless steel bulk tanks and equipment for our cheese plants are ideally suited to manufacture anaerobic digesters.  Installing them requires skilled tradesmen, which provides good paying jobs at a time when the economy is in recession.

I recently learned the Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence is working with a digester company in Germany to bring manure digester manufacturing to Wisconsin.  This company is working on smaller scale digesters that are practical for family-sized farms.  We should be able to build them here at a price that beats those built overseas.

We have tremendous opportunities to promote renewable energy and to invest in our rural economy.  A Renewable Energy Buyback Program makes sense.  Farmers will gain additional money to spend in our communities to support our local economy.  Electricity can be generated from an environmentally friendly source decreasing global warming.  Manufacturing and construction jobs can be created at a time when we desperately need jobs.  Manure that is processed poses less risk to our rivers and groundwater.  

And for the budget hawks – and every legislator needs to be one - we can start a Renewable Energy Buyback Program without using a single tax dollar. 

If you like the idea or would like more information, let me know! 

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout serves the 31st Senate District. She can be contacted at Senator Kathleen Vinehout State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free) or email at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov