Manure: The Smell of Money

This was written by former a NRDC intern, Charles Baron, and is supposed to run in the Omaha World Herald any day now. 

The odors blasting from feedlots, livestock markets, and slaughterhouses can be enough to knock the sturdiest plainsman out of his boots. But the process of turning manure into methane fuel, known as biogas, is catching on with big industry and small farmers alike.

An Omaha company, E3 BioFuels, will open the world's first biogas powered ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska this October. Their "closed loop" design features a 24 million gallon per year ethanol plant linked to a 30,000-head feedlot.

E3's cattle will produce enough manure to meet 100% of the plant's energy needs while eliminating disposal costs. In turn, the ethanol plant will produce enough wet distillers grain to feed 40% of the herd. This level of cost cutting could revolutionize ethanol's economics.

Biogas works for smaller operations as well. Haubenschild Farms Inc, in Princeton, Minnesota, built a biogas system for its 750 cow dairy herd in 1999. By 2001, the 132 kilowatt generator was producing enough electricity for their entire farm and 75 average homes. The $355,000 system produces over $80,000 worth of electricity a year.

Biogas is made by storing manure in large oxygen free tanks or covered lagoons called "Anaerobic Digesters." The manure is heated to speed natural digestion by bacteria. Bacteria then release methane, aka. natural gas, which is piped to an engine to be burned for electricity or heat.

The "cooked" manure can be used as mulch or animal bedding or sold as valuable fertilizer. High in ammonia, phosphorous, potassium, and mineral nitrate, it has been shown to increase crop yields by 10% over conventional fertilizers. Weed seeds are also digested, reducing the need for herbicides.

Biogas also has remarkable benefits for public health. Fecal coliform bacteria, which carries cholera, typhoid, hepatitis a, and dysentery, seeps from manure piles into waterways. Biogas systems have proven to reduce these bacteria by 99% while eliminating odors by 97%.

Biogas also helps reduce global warming. Methane traps twenty-one times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Burning biogas for power converts methane into less harmful carbon dioxide. Biogas proves that what's good for the environment can also be great for business.

By using manure instead of coal, gas, or oil, for power, more of Nebraska's energy dollars can be pumped into the local economy instead of in the oil coffers of the Middle-East.

The manure from each of Nebraska's 3.9 million feedlot cattle can produce 2.3 killowatt-hours of clean electricity per day - enough to meet 10.2% of Nebraska's current electricity needs. In 2002, Nebraska spent $1.4 billion on electricity, $205.3 million of which went to buy coal, gas, oil, and nuclear fuel. This money could be kept instate and private, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the rural economy each year, easing the tax burden on citizens, and making Nebraska's cattle industry more profitable and competitive.

Combine biogas with Nebraska's huge ethanol and wind-energy potential, and you're talking about a possible clean energy bonanza. Nebraska—Saudi Arabia in the heartland?

Biogas systems, while economical, are still expensive. Federal subsidies and no-interest loans are needed. Nebraska could provide a 1.5 cent/kilowatt-hour incentive for biogas electricity to spur development as Minnesota does.

Most importantly, Nebraska needs to adopt practical net-metering laws as have many other states including Iowa, Colorado, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Kansas. Net-metering allows private power producers to sell back excess power to the utility - making small-scale electricity generation economical for businesses, homes and farms.

Iowa's net metering allowance of 100 megawatts per property owner has spurred a wind energy boom worth nearly a billion dollars.

Lastly, Nebraska's utilities need to modify their Least Cost Option requirements for utility power generation so that Nebraska can invest in technologies like biogas and wind, keeping more energy dollars and jobs in state.

Biogas means energy made by Nebraskans for Nebraskans. It means giving citizens more control over where they get power. It also means independence from Mid-East oil and gas, a stronger local economy and healthier environment.

With the right strategy, Nebraska could become a world leader in clean energy. So take a good whiff of what could be Nebraska's biogas boom.

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