Livestock Manure: Let’s Use it To Transform America’s Energy System

Peter Brown

A well-conceived and soundly managed program can replace fracked natural gas

Peter Brown

The Columbia River is one of the world’s truly large waterways; it goes from Canada to Oregon, dividing states and countries, separating rural and urban areas and in a strange way, defining the counties it traverses. It is also responsible for Washington State’s unique ability to have some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation because of the hydro dams up and down the river. The state of Washington is a largely rural area with soaring trees, large farms and dairies, no petroleum, natural gas or even coal industries to speak of and more recently an abiding opposition to any fossil fuel project that could in any way threaten the environment

Washington and Oregon represent what has come to be known the Pacific Northwest, that little plot of paradise where the Sasquatch has been sighted and D. B. Cooper left several packs of money following what remains as the first and only successful hijacking for money crime in America. It has several small and large deepwater ports mostly dedicated to agricultural and logging products and is the host to America’s largest biodiesel facility in Washington at Grays Harbor which was sited there for access to feedstock coming in and biodiesel going out.

Because of its location, access, energy and amazing worldwide ports, the Pacific Northwest has always attracted larger than life characters and businesses. But it is also becoming the go-to place for several Asian, East Coast and Canadian less-than-wholesome business ventures, mostly from fossil fuels and mostly with Chinese ties. The most recent being the Kalama Methanol plant that followed the attempt to put a tar sands oil distribution center in Vancouver. Because both projects are inherently anti- environment, they have met with stiff local opposition.

Into this strangely bucolic setting we also have to mention the dairies. Washington is one of the top milk producing states in the nation and as such deserves consideration in any legislation, technical advancement and commerce that affects the business. They should also spearhead new income streams, modern innovations and be the breeding grounds for whatever is new and exciting. That said, the Oregon/Washington dairy industry is often under threat from various state and federal events. The history behind such consideration is that when dairies went afoul of the EPA or local groundwater ordinances, they were the first to be pursued and convicted most notably in the Cow Palace case where manure first became a toxic substance and subject to federal legislation.  And when the Lost Valley Farm in Boardman, Ore., became the poster child for irresponsible pollution, it was rapidly brought up short.

So when the city of Kalama, Wash., was blessed by the visit of a large Chinese company, NW Innovation Works, wishing to build an equally large methanol production facility using fracked gas from Canada and places East, it caught the full attention of the already alerted environmentalists following the petroleum transfer facility in Vancouver.  The call was no fracked gas for many reasons or from the more intransigent, any reason. As a consequence two things became clear: first, harnessing the output of a large number of dairies could actually meet the needs of the Kalama Methanol facility and two, if fracked gas was to be curtailed, then a new supply source had to be found in a massive effort from the dairies to band together for their own benefit. On paper the project made eminent ecological sense.

 

 

In China there is not enough natural gas to engage in these pursuits since several disastrous winters had decimated the reserves and in the wake of numerous deaths, the government could not, in good conscience, use the natural gas for anything but heat and power. So, methanol, which has many vital uses, had to be made from coal and to hell with the environment. Soon the abundance of natural gas in the US became irresistible and tentative queries started to appear culminating in the giant $2 billion effort to pipe gas to Kalama where a massive factory would be installed and the methanol shipped to China by boat.

Unfortunately, the people opposed to methanol in any form, even when used as the cleaner burning DME and have issued a blanket condemnation, damned for its use in the plastics industry. One of Vancouver’s foremost environmentalists, Don Steinke wrote: ”Whether the methanol produced at the Kalama plant is made into plastic, or is burned as a transportation fuel, it is bad either way.” An attitude that stands foursquare against any effort to rebuild our energy infrastructure on a foundation radically different from fossil fuels, closing the door to any other use of the manure because of the taint of methanol.

For the moment, the dairies have not signaled an interest because they lack the financial resources, proof of concept and incentives. Besides the project is far away from their usual areas of expertise. But moving forward, no part of the plan is essential to any other part of the plan, so here’s a concept as it pertains to Washington State only, with inputs from Oregon if needed:

In total numbers only, there are 262,000 dairy cows in the state of Washington each producing 25 tons of manure a year. Each kilogram (kg) of manure can produce .24 cubic meters of gas. Now the numbers get really big, because Mabel and her friends are putting out a potential 18 million cubic meters of biogas/methane a day and Kalama has expressed a need for 9,061,391 cubic meters, so the numbers match without having to get into fossil fuels issues. So, when asked if she could match the biogas needed for the methanol plant Mabel boldly said: ”Hold my prune juice and just watch us!”

Mabel and her team can easily pump out 18 million cubic meters a day because that’s what she does, day in and day out with very little to show for it and certainly none of it landing in the dairy farmer’s bank account, the state’s gas supply or even lighting up the electric grids. Where it does land, and with a resounding legal thud, is in the courts when it is not handled correctly and allowed to lie in the lagoons without attached digesters.

 

 

Feedstock supply can be assured in a number of ways that will shift what is a gigantic fossil fuel project affecting thousands from the fracking fields in Canada and the Midwest to the water tables and the Columbia River, the coal fields of China and quality of the air they breathe and ultimately generating new, local jobs, businesses and other opportunities that may not be apparent yet. If this project goes forward what is presently conceived as a single source conversion facility can very rapidly become a decentralized business with literally hundreds of regional production sites where digesters are doing what digesters do best and that is impose manure handling and control while providing a valuable commodity to be used in a number of ways, electricity to the dairy, cleaned water, digestate supplied pellets and bedding and a number of useful chemicals essential to fertilizer.

The ways to accomplish this can be adapted at every level of involvement before the size of project swallows all the options. To start with installing digesters on dairy farms, pig farms, chicken hatcheries starting at a certain number of inhabitants, would ensure several undeniable ecological and civic advantages even without the financial advantage of simply managing their manure daily.

The digesters can be priced independently taking the ultimate use of what comes out of them into consideration. For example if the farmer wants free electricity and process heat to power certain expensive functions on his farm only, then he needs a gas scrubber, and a simple generator running on natural gas, a water treatments system to return the cleaning water to grey water status and a few other odds and ends. Of course, if you run a 10,000-cow operation you may want to join the revolution, keep enough gas to electrify the place and sell the rest on the open market.

The revolution is the act of challenging fossil fuels on their own territory and shutting down fracking and diesel facilities one digester or esterification plant at a time while making money, safeguarding your dairy and becoming a better neighbor. Sounds like a deal?

If the dairies in Washington are sitting on a potential 17 million cubic meters of biogas, imagine what would happen when we harness the manure of the 9.4 million dairy cows in America. That’s a lot of manure, 2,350,000,000 tons a year or 3.5 trillion tons, enough to gas out 5,640,000,000 cubic meters of biogas. And that is only dairies, again forgetting the 31 million beef cattle, the pigs and birds. If all that gas could be economically collected and injected in the nation’s natural gas infrastructure, harvested and tallied as it were, the farmers of America would have a nice revenue stream from a marketable commodity.

Moving into the next step, think of the things you could do. Apart from power, there is a whole new business of transforming methane into useful chemicals that in the transformation will mitigate climate change. There are smaller methanol fabrication systems that already now, harness biogas wherever it is generated and create methanol, a very clean substitute for diesel in all its various varieties, from aviation bio-jet to school buses parked, idling, for hours around the schools of the larger cities and contributing to the asthma tallies in places like Oakland, Portland on other inner city environmental inversion traps. Remember that making biodiesel from vegetable oil, recycled cooking oils, animal rendering and other sources starts with mixing the feedstock with methanol and what better way to use bio-methanol rather than fossil fuel byproducts?

Biogas the methanol systems are available but at a horrendous cost. The smaller plants run in the $50 to $80 million to build, which may explain why the Kalama facility has a $2 billion funding goal. There are smaller methanol fabrication systems that harness biogas and biomethane wherever it is generated and create bio methanol and bioethanol, a very clean additive for gasoline.

However, a company based in Michigan, Gas Technologies LLC, has built and tested three mini-GTL or “Methanol-in-a-Box” systems.  These GasTechno mini-methanol plants can be built, installed and are profitable for under $8 million dollars.  The GasTechno bio methanol plants have an additional option to produce DME or Dimethoxymethane (called DMM or methylal) which is a biodegradable dimethyl acetal that can be used as a liquid replacement for crude oil-based diesel fuel.

According to Walter Breidentstein, the founder and CEO of the GasTechno process, DMM(C3H8O2)  is a liquid at normal conditions and is an oxygenated drop-in diesel fuel or diesel fuel blend.

So much for methanol. there is renewed interest in hydrogen as a direct fuel and mostly completely pure burning leaving only water. As you can see, starting from Mabel’s modest 25 tons a year, the world can be changed, climate change can be met as the scientific challenge it always was. But beyond that, the amount of time and money and support that fossil fuels have garnered since the end of the Civil War will never be repeated.

Starting now, one digester at a time, we can build a decentralized, farm-based energy supply that meets all the requirements of the rapidly depleting fossil fuels, without repeating the mistake of the past that created a single source, highly vulnerable and toxic supply chain.  We can go back to the surface of the planet for most of our energy needs, and cows are an integral part of that future.

In fact, with the creation of an integrated biogas collection infrastructure going from the dairies, where the benefits go beyond curbing GHG emissions, replacing toxic fracked gases and allowing for the clean recycling of treated water. The replacement of a coal based non-renewable energy source with a renewable natural feedstock, DME and Methanol chemical chain.

The impact on the farming communities across the United States could be very beneficial, offering significant revenue streams, new jobs and new sources of electricity and heat for a sorely impacted segment of our economy. Finally it could open a whole new array of technology from research to education based on solving a very real threat to our planet, this plan should have been embraced by a wide swath of the population, impacting not just the rural counties but also bringing new openings to suburban areas. At the very least, we would expect investors, venture capitalists, universities and international consortia to be knocking on the doors of what could be the new Silicon Valley boom towns.

And yet, to date the applause has been deafening in its absence. Sure, every politician from school board members to presidential candidates  has declared that “climate change” is very concerning item in their grab bag of ”things to be taken care of”. The Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, has based his presidential bid on curbing climate change and yet Mabel stands aloof in a sea of manure waiting for relief.

In Washington’s third congressional district, one aspiring congressman is taking dead aim at the climate change issue because Peter Khalil believes that the topic is too important to ignore and that all the benefits of being the first state in the nation as far as renewable energy is a guiding light to go as far as possible in that direction rather than relax complacently as the leader. According to his campaign website: “Climate change caused mainly by greenhouse gas emissions released by burning fossils fuels threatens the safety of our planet. Southwest Washington is already feeling the effects of a warmer climate: hotter summers, wetter winters, low snowpack, severe droughts, wildfires, salmon die-offs, and toxic algae blooms.”

So in many ways from a popular support point of view, the dairy farmers of America can expect some interest and some involvement, but they stand in stark contrast to the fossil fuel interests, health care stakeholders and all the rest of the political agendas stemming from the debates. Should a debate be allowed on climate change alone I anticipate at least some interest to be shed on the farming communities of this country. After all, we were founded on the strong backs of the farmers that came out here to build and not to destroy the planet.

Peter Brown, a recognized author on climate change, biodiesel, solar and other alternate energy sources, is the founder and Principal of Euro Marketing Tools, a sales and marketing group specializing in the creation of ecologically friendly energy producing facilities in Europe and the United States. Peter has had extensive experience in various forms of power and energy project marketing, from CANDU reactors before Three Mile Island, to the James Bay Project and more recently solar, biomass and biodiesel projects.  A native of Belgium and a multilingual graduate of Washington College, he now specializes in bringing biofuels to Europe and Africa from his home base near Vancouver, Wash. He can be contacted at [email protected] or 1-408 628 9020

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