Methane travels

by Bethany M. Dunbar April 2, 2010

I ran into Laurie Zilbauer of Northeastern Vermont Development Association at the NEK Energy Fair last weekend.

She told me a little bit about a study that was done on the potential of a community methane digester in that could be used by a number of dairy farms in the Charleston area.

The study showed that the community digester would not be feasible due to transportation costs.  But she added that the study was done a few years ago, and it should be updated for two reasons.

Smaller digesters might be available and change the economics, for one thing, and more than just cow manure could be used to make electricity.

These are intriguing questions.  To add a little more biomass to the alchemy of ideas here, it seems relevant to look to other places where people have been doing more with this technology.

To that end, I recently interviewed Bob Montgomery who traveled to Germany to look at their advanced systems of renewable energy.  That story is posted below.

If you check out the Chronicle’s web site, you will see a story written by Chris Braithwaite about his visit to a community digester in Oregon.

I have wondered how much of the cost of these massive digesters is about engineering each one to fit a particular farm.  Is there a way to cut the costs by designing something generic?

I can totally see how transportation costs could be a big factor.  To solve this problem, how about bringing in more cows?  If they are making too much milk, the milk could be dumped into the pit, helping make electricity and keeping the milk price in balance at the same time.  Or bring in more beef cows or collect the manure of all the alpacas, goats, sheep and horses and other farm animals around the state.  Or grow some energy crops specifically to put in the digesters such as what is being studied in Germany.

Crazy talk?  Crazier is the concept that we will just let all these dairy farms quietly go out of business without doing anything to help keep them here.  There are fewer than 1,000 dairy farms left in Vermont.  It’s time for some radical steps — maybe dumping milk into the digesters is one of them.

In 2008 I wrote an editorial about how Vermont needs more cows.  I haven’t changed my mind.  As a power source, cows are one of the best options.  So many of the other power sources create problems, while cows on the landscape enhance the environment, especially if their manure goes into a digester.

Editor travels to Germany to learn about renewable energy

Bob Montgomery of St. Johnsbury, in Germany, at a research plant. Photo courtesy of Mr. Montgomery

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, February 24, 2010

In Germany, energy and agriculture are tightly tied together.

“Germany has a national will to become more energy independent,” said Bob Montgomery, the editor of Farming, the Journal of Northeast Agriculture.

The journal is based in St. Johnsbury, and Mr. Montgomery got to find out firsthand about German energy and agriculture when he and nine other media people won a German grant for a trip to that country to see their accomplishments.

“If nothing else, Germans are thorough,” Mr. Montgomery said.

Mr. Montgomery’s trip was organized by a nongovernmental organization with a goal of creating connections between Germany and the rest of the world in order to drive sustainable development.  The group is called InWent, and Mr. Montgomery got an e-mail from someone about the trip suggesting that he should apply for a grant that would pay for the whole thing.  Ten people would be chosen.  The people who were chosen were seven print journalists and three radio reporters.

“I applied in July,” Mr. Montgomery said.  He didn’t hear back until about three weeks before he was supposed to go.  The trip was October 4 to 10.

Germany’s will to become more energy independent has to do with the people’s environmental awareness, but it’s also about the fact that a lot of their energy is imported from countries that might not always want to trade with them.

“You are at the mercy of whoever has the switch,” he said.

“They do a lot of solar and wind, and they’ve done it for a long time,” he said.

A bioenergy village powered and heated by renewable sources including methane digesters was the showpiece of the trip.

An arbitration process, free for all participants, has been established for questions of siting energy plants.

“It’s all mediation, and they have had fantastic success with it,” he said.

In Bavaria, one region of Germany, there are 21,000 wind turbines, 4,000 biogas plants, and 100,000 solar panels.

By 2050, Germany wants to be getting half its energy from renewable sources.  Mr. Montgomery said they are already ahead of the goals set in earlier years.

Biogas is being used, and research for more efficient ways to make and use it are ongoing.

“They’re researching multiple types of plants,” he said.  Among the meetings the participants had was one with a group called the Union for the Advancement of Oil and Protein Plants.  One of the plants being grown is rape seed, or canola.

The Germans are also growing hemp, cotton, switch grass, and miscanthus, a plant that can be harvested with corn harvesters but is good for the soil and does not need nitrogen.  It leaves a root ball behind that can be ground up as fertilizer for the next season.

The Germans have testing facilities for their digesters to determine which plants, or combinations of plants, make the most energy.

“They have a database of thousands of things,” he said.  They are creating energy recipes.

All this means more options for farmers, and more ways to make farming sustainable economically.  Dairy farmers are no longer completely dependent on a milk price they do not determine.

“They’re able to take low quality crops, or if there’s a price dip in rye grass,” the digester gives them a way to make some money on crops that might not otherwise generate income.

“Farmers get paid for manure,” he said.  In some instances there are digesters used by a group of farmers.  They bring the manure to the digesters and get paid for it — and get fertilizer and bedding.

Because Germany has a piping system for natural gas, gas for heating is easier to distribute it than it would be here.

The farms are not all gigantic in size.

“There was a 100-cow farm we visited right next to the village.”

Research is ongoing not only for crops but for bioenergy created from wood.  A research center for wood bioenergy has huge testing furnaces.

Two million hectares (almost five million acres) are planted with energy crops in Germany.  The Germans do not want to put so much of their land into energy crops that they will be taking away food crop land, but so far that has not been a problem.

Milk prices are bad for farmers in Germany as they are here, and Germany has been losing 5 percent of its farmers each year.  While the InWent trip was under way, there were protests by farmers who were dumping out milk.  Mr. Montgomery said statistics for farm income show that in Germany, about 25 percent of the farmers earn three times above the national average wage, but 75 percent earn 30 percent less than the average wage.  The farmers who had put in digesters and were working on energy crops were, as a rule, doing better.  Mr. Montgomery sees the possibilities for Vermont farmers as well.

Wind turbines were a big part of the picture, but Mr. Montgomery said they were not very near houses.

“It’s just not an eyesore.  It’s just cool,” he said.  The turbines are a symbol of independence, he said.  “They seem like they’re everywhere.”

He said there were more wind turbines in the northern parts of the country and more solar panels in the south.  Biogas and bioenergy plants are used to level off the energy spikes.

Mr. Montgomery heard about experiments with putting turbines near an old mining shaft, and running water down the shaft to a turbine at the bottom at times when the wind is not blowing.  In effect, energy is being stored in water instead of in batteries.

The bioenergy village is called Juhnde and has about 750 citizens.  The village gets 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a year from all over the world.  The village is run by a cooperative.

The former mayor of the town takes tourists around to see it.

“Now he’s the town guide and cheerleader,” said Mr. Montgomery.

Joining the village costs about 5,000 to 6,000 Euros per household, which is about $6,800 to $8,160.  The homeowner need not buy a furnace and never has individual maintenance issues.

The bioenergy village has 400 cows and 500 pigs.

Mr. Montgomery visited one of the three farms participating in energy production for the village.

“It looks like a Vermont dairy farm,” he said, set up with a freestall barn.  “Cows in Germany pretty much look like cows in America.”  The cows were Holsteins, a breed that originated in Europe.

The farmer told the visitors that energy farming was extremely helpful.  Mr. Montgomery said the farmer told them, “We would not still be in business if we were not able to sell our manure.”

He said they can’t make a living on milk anymore.

“For him it was a godsend.  It saved his farm.”

The Germans are also researching biofuels to run vehicles.  They have done some studies that show biomethane gets much more fuel per acre than biodiesel.  A car could go 67.6 kilometers (42 miles) on biodiesel from a hectare (2.47 acres) of crops, but that is only one-third of the distance the car can go on biomethane grown on the same amount of land.

Asked his main impression of the trip, Mr. Montgomery said, “It was bittersweet.”

He said he believes much of the technology could work here, but the politics are so different that it’s hard to picture it happening in the same way in the United States.

“The potential is there to save the dairy industry,” he said.  With energy farming, he said, “the milk is just icing on the cake.”

Dairy cows in a September pasture. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Editorial, the Chronicle, June 18, 2008

Vermont needs more cows

The Maxwells’ Neighborhood Farm in Coventry is putting in a methane digester.  With 1,000 cows, the farm will be able to produce enough electricity for about 200 homes.

That means it takes five cows to make enough electricity for an average home.

It will reduce greenhouse gases and bedding costs for the farm.  It will save sawdust for other uses such as wood pellets or chips for heat.  The liquid fertilizer will have just as many nutrients as it ever had, but it will smell better.

With about half the cost of $1.5-million covered by grants, the project is likely to pay for itself in five years.

This altogether seems like such a great idea for everyone involved that every farm ought to have one.  Some priority should be given to making these systems cost effective for smaller farms.

With 142,000 cows in Vermont right now, if all that methane was harnessed we could make enough electricity for 28,400 average homes.  Vermont has a population of about 600,000 people and about 240,000 housing units.

So more cows are what we really need in Vermont.  With the possibility of a more stable income for farmers, Vermont could conceivably reverse the recent downward spiral of farm numbers.

Wouldn’t that be a bright vision for the future? — B.M.D.

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