Tania Soussan, Carrie Christopher and Jennifer Pontzer – Concept Green


Concept Green LLC is a local sustainability firm and Certified B Corp, specializing in sustainability reporting. Concept Green’s interest in anaerobic digesters and their potential impact in New Mexico was sparked though through our work with the Innovation Center for US Dairy® on its sustainability initiatives.

Keith Hughes has a vision. A vision for cow manure. He wants to take the waste—a serious source of greenhouse gas emissions, odor and groundwater pollution from 13 dairies along Doña Ana County’s “dairy row” and turn it into green, sustainable energy. As founder of R-Qubed Energy, Inc. in El Paso, Hughes has been promoting the construction of an anaerobic digester that could take in tons of cattle manure and capture the methane gas it produces as it breaks down to generate electricity.

But Hughes and others have found that this particular cash cow comes with lots of hurdles. “There are challenges, for sure,” said Colin Messer, program manager in the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Energy Conservation and Management Division. Anaerobic digester projects have been successful in other states, and the Obama administration is pushing to get more up and running. Dairy biogas even made headlines at this year’s Super Bowl. Fans traveling to New Orleans were offered the option of buying carbon offsets from manure digesters at a Michigan dairy farm.

In NM, however, no projects have yet made it into operation. That’s not for lack of effort. Twenty-three dairies in eastern NM joined together about eight years ago as the Pecos Valley Biomass Cooperative to research ways to transform cow manure from an environmental problem into a moneymaker. US Department of Energy funding helped pay for a technical and economic feasibility study, which uncovered obstacles. “It cost too much to do,” said co-op leader Gerry Greathouse, owner of Nature’s Dairy in Roswell. “In the end, it was just too much that would be passed on to the consumer… to fund that.”

Money also is the problem for R-Qubed, which has been ready to begin building for more than a year. Hughes said he and his team have had trouble convincing investors to help bankroll the $119 million construction cost for a 12- to 15-megawatt plant, in part because it’s hard to justify the need when natural gas is so cheap.

Reframing the issue could be the answer, he said. “We need polluted water cleaned up.” The nitrate contamination of groundwater caused by livestock manure has been a mounting problem in NM. Dairy farmers are struggling with expensive compliance challenges, and conservation and citizen groups such as the New Mexico Dairy Reform Coalition have formed to advocate change and tougher regulation. Digesters could help dairies and dairy-watch groups find common ground.

Dan Lorimier, a conservation coordinator specializing in dairy issues for the Río Grande Sierra Club chapter in NM (a member of the coalition), said it would be great to see dairy waste turned into electricity. “If it were to be done right and not compromise air quality, we would love to see some useful outcome for dairy waste because it is such a source of groundwater pollution,” he said.

Anaerobic digesters also are good for the environment because they capture methane from manure that would otherwise be released. Methane from manure contributes nearly 23 percent of the carbon footprint of fluid milk, according to research conducted by the Innovation Center for US Dairy.

The state of NM is encouraging biomass projects and in 2010 enacted a tax credit for dairies transporting wet manure to a renewable-energy facility. In addition, the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires major utilities to increase the percentage of their power produced from renewable resources in the coming years; dairy biogas could make up part of that package.

Biogas projects can get help from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary AgSTAR Program, which promotes the recovery and use of methane from animal manure.

But there are unique challenges in New Mexico. “The moisture content of the manure is a critical thing,” Messer said, explaining that the state’s arid climate affects the energy value of the waste. Other differences between projects here and in other states include how much manure can be readily collected for processing and the availability of nearby farmland to utilize the nutrient-rich fertilizer, an end-product of the digester process.

R-Qubed is relying on a patented “sweetener” that will be added to the digestion process to allow the company to boost energy production by 30 percent and make the project economically feasible. “At the end of the day, it’s profitable,” Hughes said, adding that a federal grant for up to $13.5 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Section 1603 program also will help. The project also would help create a sustainable economy in the Las Cruces area with about 100 jobs paying an average of $33,000 a year, Hughes said.

In the Pecos Valley, the co-op’s efforts have stalled, but Greathouse hasn’t given up on finding a way to make a digester project work. “It needs to go forward,” he said. “We have to figure this out… We need to learn ways to keep us sustainable.”

 

Soussan, Christopher and Pontzer are with Concept Green LLC, a Albuquerque, NM-based Certified B Corp, specializing in sustainability reporting. Concept Green’s interest in anaerobic digesters and their potential impact in NM was sparked by their work with the Innovation Center for US Dairy’s sustainability initiatives. 505.414.9313, carrie@conceptgreen.net, www.conceptgreen.net

 

 

HOW DIGESTERS WORK

In a typical anaerobic digester, manure is put into large tanks and heated to an optimum temperature for the microorganisms that digest the organic material. The natural microbial process breaks down the waste much more quickly and efficiently than in open lagoons.

The resulting methane gas is collected and can go to a generator to produce electricity, which can then be sold to a utility company. The treated manure can be used as fertilizer, and the leftover water is clean enough to irrigate fields or wash down dairy barns.

The digester itself produces enough heat and energy to power the system.

 

 

 

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