Confessions of a methane junky

by Bethany M. Dunbar March 19, 2010

How did I get to be such a methane junky?

I know it’s bad because the other day I got an e-mail with a link to a You Tube video of a tour of a methane plant that is making electricity and I got very excited.  Your might say I was jonesing.

It’s a tour of the methane plant at the landfill in Coventry.  Washington Electric Cooperative had the foresight to invest in a technology that takes the landfill gas and makes it into electricity.  At this point, according to the video, the cooperative gets 70 percent of its electricity from this plant.  The board of directors chose this technology because it’s renewable, economical, and predictable.

My addiction is primarily a function of thinking that methane digesters could save the family farm and possibly a mountaintop here and there.  Cow manure makes methane too.  How about our municipal septic systems?

Maybe methane digesters won’t save all the remaining family farms, but they could definitely save a few more here and there.  Save the farm, save the working landscape and our rural culture, our economy, and that means save Vermont.

As for the mountaintops, methane is a much more reliable source of electricity than the wind.  Methane digesters work around the clock.

I have a feeling that my publisher, Chris Braithwaite, is a methane junky too.  While on vacation to visit his new grandson on the west coast, he went to see a system that collects manure from half a dozen small dairy farms and puts it into a digester to make electricity.

He’s going to do a story about it, so you see, he just couldn’t stand not to.  Ha.

Posted below is the story I did for the Chronicle recently about the farm methane digesters in Vermont.

Keeping reading the paper and maybe next week we’ll have a story about the system out west.

Here’s the link to the Washington Electric Cooperative video:

A final note — congratulations to Craftsbury speller Mael LeScouezec who won the contest for best speller in Vermont.

Joseph Gresser is working on a story about him for next Wednesday’s paper.  He wrote about Mael and his teammates in 2008, and that story is posted on the Chronicle’s web site. I hope you’ll check it out.

Thanks and have a great weekend.  Spring has sprung, no doubt about it.  Anyone have signs of spring to report?  I have heard redwing blackbirds and a VERY loud woodpecker.

Meanwhile I noticed some other methane videos after watching the WEC one.  Gotta go!

Matt Maxwell of Coventry is a dairy farmer making electricity with methane gases.

Dairy farmers are making more than milk these days, the Chronicle, February 10, 2010

by Bethany M. Dunbar

NORTH TROY — Reg Chaput’s target date for making electricity with his methane digester is August 1.  Chaput Family Farms is the second large dairy farm in Orleans County to venture into the realm of energy farming.

It’s very likely not the last.

Vermont is leading the nation in this technology with at least six methane digesters making electricity right now and ten to 12 more coming on line soon.  There are about 150 digesters in the entire United States, according to Christopher Bray, a state representative in New Haven.

Mr. Bray lives in the same district as one of the first of these units to start making electricity in Vermont, the Blue Spruce Farm, the Audet brothers’ farm, in Bridport.  Mr. Bray has just announced that he will run for lieutenant governor.  If elected, he will consider the $60,000 annual salary to be full-time and year-round, and he will devote the bulk of his time to issues of agriculture and forest land.

He has sponsored a bill, H.566, that would increase prices the farmers are receiving for the electricity generated by the digesters.

Reg Chaput’s timing turned out to be perfect.  But others who pioneered the technology in Vermont and who have helped other farmers learn about it got a much lower rate.  H.566 would ensure that farmers would get 16 cents a kilowatt hour.

Mr. Chaput has a guaranteed price of 16 cents a kilowatt hour for the next 20 years.  The market price for electricity dropped this past summer, leaving other farmers with a price of just 3 cents.

Mr. Chaput has been working on a plan to put in a digester since 2007.  In 2008 he went through the United States Department of Agriculture application.  In 2009 he applied for a license.

“It takes a year to get your grants and loans lined up,” he said.  “You can’t expect to do it in a year or two years.  Ours has actually gone very smoothly.”

The system is going to cost $1,832,587, and about 48 percent of it will be paid for by grants.  The Chaputs milk 930 cows and have 1,750 animals in all.  About 1,450 of them are on the main farm site and their manure will be contributing to the electricity production.

“Our estimate is the pay back will be less than three years,” he said.

With 2009 being such a horrible year for farmers’ milk prices, Mr. Chaput said he is just happy to have made it through the year.

“The vendors have been really good to work with, really understanding,” he said.

The financial pay back to the farmers for a methane digester is more than the electricity.  Once the gases and liquids are extracted from the manure, dry matter left behind, which looks kind of like peat moss, is available to use as bedding.  Bedding costs — typically for sawdust — on a large dairy farm can run up to $80,000 or $100,000 a year.

“We should be generating enough to sell to other farmers,” said Mr. Chaput.

He said these days sawdust is not only costly, it’s extremely hard to find.

“My sawdust supplier informed me that I’m not going to see another load until spring,” Mr. Chaput said.

He has been getting bedding from the Maxwell’s Neighborhood Farm in Coventry, which has the other methane digester in Orleans County.  He mentioned that if anyone thinks the dry bedding is dirty, it’s not.  Farm milk is regularly tested for somatic cells, an indicator of bacteria problems, and Mr. Chaput noted that his cows have had low cell counts regularly for the last 12 month and just received a gold certificate from Dairylea for quality milk.

The digesters also save the environment from the methane gases normally emitted on a farm, and that means the odor is greatly reduced.  Liquid that comes out of a methane digester is enhanced as fertilizer.  The nitrogen is immediately available to plants, according to Mr. Bray.  That means plants can absorb it more quickly and it’s less likely to cause pollution.

Mr. Bray said there is some new research going on using the liquid created by methane digesters to grow algae and make biofuel.  He said the potential for electricity from methane on existing large and medium farms in Vermont is probably about 25 megawatts.

Another fringe benefit of the system is waste heat generated by the process of making electricity.

Matt Maxwell in Coventry says he underestimated the amount of waste heat his system would produce.

The Maxwell farm’s digester has been running for about a year, and Mr. Maxwell is very happy with it.

“We make enough electricity to pay our loans off every month…. We’re breaking even basically.”

The generator is 225 kilowatts, and it’s making between 200 and 225 kilowatts each hour.  He estimates that the system makes enough electricity for the farm plus 200 houses.

The Maxwells have 800 milking cows, and he is hoping the payback time will be about five years, if all the pumps and motors last.

“Having to buy a $90,000 pump could set us back,” he said with a smile.

The Maxwells have a fixed contract with Vermont Electric Cooperative.  They get 8.5 cents a kilowatt plus four cents from the Cow Power program.  Cow Power generates income from consumers who prefer to buy electricity from farms and sends extra on to the farmers.

“We’ve had a few minor issues,” with the generator, Mr. Maxwell said, but Martin Machinery of Pennsylvania has stood by it.

“There’s so much heat that can be captured by this system,” Mr. Maxwell said.  He is thinking about adding a greenhouse to grow some plants with the waste heat.  They are using it to heat the farm’s water, the milkhouse and a work shop, but there’s a lot more that could be heated.

If he was doing it over again, he would have built a bigger building to dry out the bedding with radiant heating in the floor.

“We didn’t put in our radiant heating initially,” he said.

The Maxwells are taking waste water from a chicken plant in Portland, Maine, about 6,000 gallons a week.  This has helped with making electricity, but he has found that he has to be careful about dumping a lot of anything in all at once.  If you do that, it creates a spike in the gas that sets off an alarm.  His system is set up so the alarm calls two cell phones.

In order for a dairy farm to add a methane digester, someone at the farm has to be willing to learn it and run it.  Mr. Maxwell clearly enjoys this part of his business, but he mentions that it takes up a chunk of time each week and people should not underestimate that.  He figures he spends about ten to 12 hours a week on maintenance.  Things need to be oiled, checked, drained, and cleaned.

Bill Rowell in Sheldon added a methane digester three years ago.  He said he is very pleased with it, and it is turning out to be “the environmental tool that we hoped it would be.”

Mr. Rowell, who grew up in Albany, milks about 900 cows and has 150 dry cows and 650 replacement heifers.

He said it has been difficult to know how much time he and his staff have spent on the system.  Many days it goes along just fine, but “if you have a problem you may have four men tied up for a day.”

The original deal for the price of electricity was that the farm would get 95 percent of the wholesale price of electricity.  But then there was an unexpected drop in price, due to the recession, Mr. Bray said, and the fact that more natural gas has come on the market and the spot market price for electricity went down from ten cents a kilowatt hour to three cents.

Mr. Bray said farmers who are starting up now get a guaranteed price of 16 cents for 20 years, but those who signed contracts earlier were getting much less.  His bill is aimed to bring the old contracts up to the price being paid for the new systems.

“Here we have some of the most progressive farms,” he said, and they were facing a triple whammy of making a huge investment just as both milk prices and electricity prices fell to below the cost of production.

Mr. Rowell said it costs him about 13.75 cents a kilowatt to break even.

Right now the existing methane digesters have an interim rate established by the Public Service Board of eight cents a kilowatt plus the 4 cents for the Cow Power credit.  That rate is in place for a six-month time period and will allow the Legislature to consider H.566.

H.566 would establish a standard offer for producers of renewable energy with a plant capacity of 2.2 megawatts or less.  There is a ceiling of 50 megawatts of power from these small producers.

Mr. Rowell said there is a lot of support for these projects in the Legislature, and he commended Mr. Bray and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie in particular for their efforts.

“We have a good relationship with these folks,” he said.

On his web site, Mr. Rowell notes that his digester has made two million kilowatt hours of electricity consistently in the last year, enough to power 300 average sized homes.

“Additionally, during the past two and a half years we have shared our insight with over 10,000 visitors from 23 countries.”

Mr. Bray, who has a horse farm and serves on the Vermont Milk Commission, is determined to do what he can to help keep the farms going in Vermont.

“Eighty-eight percent of Vermont is covered by farms and forest.  It is a crucial part of Vermont’s economy and also our culture.  Not just lately but for hundreds of years,” he said.  “I’m not willing to sit by and watch it disappear.”

Mr. Bray said so far the Cow Power program has had good support not only from residential customers, who have signed up to pay a bit more for their electricity to support the farmers, but also from some Vermont businesses including Long Trail brewing company.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s