|Mar 27, 2012 --
Tillamook County, located on Oregon’s northern coast, is home to a concentration of dairy operations and with them, plenty of cow manure. Advances in the renewable energy industry have proven that an abundance of livestock waste in a single locale is, in fact, an opportunity for sustainable economic development through domestic energy production.
This is possible with anaerobic digesters that use microbes and heat to break down animal waste and release methane biogas that is then captured and burned to produce electricity. With the latest generation of this technology, having a lot of cow manure means you can produce a lot of power.
“There is a tremendous resource in Tillamook County,” said Daryl Maas, co-owner of a private business that generates and sells renewable energy to utility companies and is now setting up operations in the local community.
Like all animal agriculture, dairies face particular challenges with managing and disposing of livestock waste in an environmentally friendly manner. This entails constructing and maintaining large, expensive manure storage facilities. At designated times of the year, producers carefully apply measured amounts of waste to fertilize their farm fields while ensuring pathogens stay clear of water supplies and the associated aromas are controlled. Adding anaerobic digesters to the equation removes odors and pathogens from the byproducts. The leftover solids come out as a clean, fluffy plant material that can be used as odor-, weed- and pathogen-free compost or even as animal bedding material back in the dairy barn. The liquid byproduct can be field-applied as a nutrient-rich fertilizer without the excessive odors or the concentration of harmful bacteria that could threaten water quality. What’s more, much of the methane in the manure is captured before it can enter the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Instead, the biogas is used to generate a saleable commodity, energy.
According to Maas, dairy farmers have been increasingly drawn to the concept, but with high-maintenance agricultural operations to run and cows to milk two or three times a day, they don’t have the time or expertise to install and manage a digester facility. In addition, small systems serving single farms could bring in extra income, or they might generate just enough power revenue to cover the cost of running and maintaining the digester. “Dairy farmers were telling me, ‘this sounds interesting, but we’re not going to do it,’” he explained.
That’s what inspired the entrepreneurial spirit in Maas and his brother and partner, Kevin. Together, they decided to go into business producing and selling renewable energy alongside dairies in Oregon, Washington and California. Today, their company, Farm Power Northwest, is operating two digesters and constructing another three.
Their 1 megawatt Farm Power Tillamook digester located just outside the small town of Tillamook, Oregon, is expected to go online in April of 2012. At that time, they will begin selling the local utility district enough electricity to power 700 homes a year. Once this digester is up and running, the company will break ground on a second facility in the local area, the 750 kW Farm Power Misty Meadow digester.
Support from USDA Rural Development is playing a key role in helping Farm Power Northwest and similar ventures bring digesters into the arena of commercially viable enterprise. “Projects like this are good for the environment and good for rural economies,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker.
The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is one of USDA’s key mechanisms to encourage renewable energy advancements in the U.S. The program is designed to help meet President Obama's goal of developing a reliable, sustainable supply of domestic energy.
“By supporting renewable projects here in rural Oregon, we are helping meet the President’s goals for domestic energy production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating new jobs, and providing economic opportunity,” Walker said.
Toward this end, USDA Rural Development is providing Farm Power Northwest with REAP financial support in the form of a $100,000 grant and a $2.65 million loan guarantee for construction of the Farm Power Tillamook facility. Another REAP grant of $500,000 and a $1 million guarantee will allow the company to construct the Farm Power Misty Meadow later this year. The total cost to build the two facilities is nearly $9 million.
“REAP is a well-structured program,” said Maas. “The financial support is merit-based, it provides just enough funding to make a difference, and requires applicants to have a good model.”
A good business model is something Farm Power Northwest understands. By locating their operations in clusters close to a number of dairies, they ensure a steady, reliable supply of feedstock, minimize or eliminate transportation costs, and produce enough energy to turn a profit. They are also able to concentrate the work for installing and maintaining the digesters. The solid business plan has attracted the interest of New Resource Bank and One Pacific Coast Bank, commercial lenders that are providing the bulk of Farm Power Northwest’s financing for the two Tillamook County digesters.
This public-private backing is allowing for the construction of a lined and insulated concrete digester vault, overflow pit, and a mechanical building at each facility. In addition, they are installing sophisticated generators, methane gas tanks, electrical conduits, remote monitoring systems and pipelines to nearby dairies. By next month, the Tillamook digester will process approximately 60,000 gallons of animal waste produced by 2,000 cows at eight dairies each day. Later this year, the Misty Meadow system will begin processing an estimated 90,000 gallons of animal waste produced daily by 3,000 cows.
All told, the local community benefits in a number of ways. In addition to assisting local dairy farmers and mitigating the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, Farm Power Northwest is creating local construction and installation work and will hire a permanent local staff of as many as three employees in the Tillamook area. In addition, the venture supports other local businesses. “We buy from the same vendors as our farmers,” Maas said.
In Tillamook, residents have long understood that the fragrant “dairy air” can be an indicator of prosperity. Now, they are discovering an even more promising local economy, and to many, that smells even sweeter.