Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seattle Renewable Energy Meetup

For those of you already planning for after the holidays, I'll be speaking in Seattle on Thursday evening, January 21st, at the Renewable Energy Meetup. By then Farm Power Rexville will have almost five months of operations behind it and perhaps I'll even have some more progress to report on Farm Power Lynden. I've been giving a development-themed presentation for so long that I need to redesign it to reflect the fact we're actually producing power now! I'm looking forward to other conferences and presentations in 2010, so watch this space for more information.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

One gigawatt-hour

We recently produced our one millionth kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. That sounds impressive compared to how much an individual home consumes (10-12,000 kWh a year), but the utility industry refers to production in terms of MWh (a thousand kWh) or GWh (a million kWh) which makes the milestone seem less imposing. Our generator is making a little bigger impact on the needs of the Puget Sound Energy Green Power program, producing a bit over one percent of all the renewable energy purchased by voluntary customers.

The New York Times published an article critical of green power programs, but one of their strengths is the ability to bring electricity usage into more human-scale terms. PSE's Green Power comes from about a dozen distinct and relatively small projects in the Northwest, while the larger utility system draws power from hundreds of often-enormous plants spread across the western U.S. and Canada. Unlike other states, Washington requires all renewable energy premiums to stay in their respective programs rather than padding utility profits. We've been very happy working with the PSE program, and we hope their customers who are familiar with us feel more connected to their electricity usage--our generator is running day and night, turning out kilowatt-hours for you!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Are cows worse than coal?

Just when the "clean coal" public-relations campaign seemed to be losing momentum, the Worldwatch Institute came out with a report blaming livestock for over half of all greenhouse-gas emissions. I can't imagine a better gift to the coal industry; the consensus has always been that burning coal is the single largest cause of warming, but now more confusion threatens to push the debate backwards.

The report makes a number of questionable claims, but one stands out: Worldwatch contends that since livestock have been domesticated, even their breathing should be counted as a human-caused emission. This ignores the reality that huge numbers of wild animals, especially methane-producing ruminants, used to roam the earth without ever registering the 25-gigaton CO2 impact ascribed to modern livestock. For example, the American buffalo population two hundred years ago likely exceeded the current population of all American dairy and beef cows combined. A report with so little concern for consistency resembles propaganda more than research.

The second half of the article reads like an extended advertisement for veggie burgers, with the implication that replacing meat with "soy analogs" could eliminate those inflated greenhouse-gas emissions. Meat has become a pretty easy target for a variety of activists and I won't try to defend it, but I do reject the claim that all animal proteins cause terrible environmental impacts relative to a vegan diet. Here are some reasons why dairy is at least as sustainable as soy:
  • Production of soy protein does not use materially less land than production of dairy-farm protein; this holds true for both industrial and organic production. I encourage any reader to run the numbers--for industrial methods, both end up at about 750 pounds of usable protein per acre.
  • Up to half of dairy cow diets typically consist of forage crops--alfalfa and grass that require minimal spraying, cultivation, and processing; in contrast, row crops like soybeans must be tilled and planted annually.
  • American farmers produce twice as much milk with half as many cows as they kept in the 1920s. This smaller dairy population has less absolute and per-capita impact in every area.
  • Manure in less-mechanized dairy farming is typically handled as a solid that produces little methane; farms that handle their manure as a liquid also have the ability to extract energy from that manure with an anaerobic digester--which not only destroys the methane but also can replace fossil sources of energy.
  • Dairy farming provides its own fertilizer; while soybeans fix their own nitrogen, they still need regular doses of phosphorus and potassium (along with micronutrients) to stay in production.
Taking this report at face value should lead to calls to kill off our livestock while continuing to burn coal; hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and remind us that thousands of years of agriculture have fed us without cooking us.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


On a beautiful Monday morning, September 28th, we held our ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Farm Power Rexville digester. Guests started showing up half an hour early, and soon we had three rows of cars alongside the project driveway and more folks parked on the road! But it was too nice of a day to worry about parking problems and people gradually drifted across the broad gravel area west of the digester towards the Rexville Grocery catering (including local apples and scones made with blueberries grown within site of the project). Some guests mentioned already having heard our story on KUOW radio while driving up.

The festivities began when Governor Chris Gregoire arrived. First we thanked our investors and other financial partners: Shorebank Pacific took top billing as our lender, and we were honored to have Puget Sound Energy CEO Steve Reynolds (with me and one of our investors at right) come to speak about his company's focus on sustainable energy resources and its Green Power program. Not only is PSE buying our power on a bank-friendly ten-year contract, but it has also helped get the word out about our project with press releases and the community-focused blogging of public-relations guru Andy Wappler; they even allowed us to use some of the photos they took at the ribbon-cutting (except for the first one, all the pictures on this blog post are courtesy of PSE).

Next we thanked our manure-related partners: Andgar Corporation completed our digester on time and on budget, lending their expertise accumulated on five previous projects to make sure everything worked right. The two dairy farms just north and south of the project, run by the VanderKooy and Kuipers families, received special appreciation for their absolutely indispensable role. Then everyone from the program up to that point lined up to cut a ribbon in front of the mechanical building overhead door.

Cutting the ribbon are Kevin Maas (Farm Power), Steve Reynolds (PSE), Garritt Kuipers (Beaver Marsh Farms), Daryl Maas (Farm Power), Jae Easterbrooks (Shorebank), Bryan Van Loo (Andgar), Jason VanderKooy (Harmony Dairy), Gerrit Kuipers (Beaver Marsh Farms), and Eric Vander Kooy (Harmony Dairy).

With the project now "open", we invited the governor up to speak to the crowd. She told us that she is a big fan of anaerobic digesters and has now visited three of them. She also continued the day's dairy theme by emphasizing the contribution of embattled farmers to the state. The Capital Press posted a video with part of her speech (and some words from dairyman Eric VanderKooy as well!). We were honored that Governor Gregoire made time to visit our event, and our community could see clear evidence that her priorities include clean energy and agriculture.

A final few words came from that great friend of Skagit County agriculture, state Senator Mary Margaret Haugen. Then we brought up Steve Reynolds and Governor Gregoire again to help us start the generator; we were standing on the stage outside the building, but with a push of the mouse button on my old iBook our 750kW Guascor roared to life and the program concluded.

Many guests stayed around for the better part of an hour, looking over the site and catching up. The Skagit County agricultural community was out in force, and other elected officials made time to visit: Representatives Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith from our 10th Legislative District, Skagit County Commissioners Sharon Dillon and Ron Wesen, 40th District Representative Dave Quall, House Energy Committee Chair John McCoy of the 38th District, and Mayor Ramon Hayes of La Conner. We thank everyone who came to celebrate with us!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Farm Power Lynden

Our Congressman--Rick Larsen of Washington's 2nd District--put out a press release about our USDA grant, but otherwise the publicity has been limited. We'll see whether that continues after today's announcement of stimulus-funded state energy grants and loans; Farm Power Lynden was one of several anaerobic digester projects funded. The state energy program emphasized job creation, so our partnership with Van Wingerden Inc.'s new greenhouse project helped us compete--we are thrilled to be among those chosen to pump sustainable investment into Washington's economy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Calling the bottom

After the worst six months in the history of the American dairy business, we may be able to call the bottom on milk prices. Farmers are paid per hundred pounds (cwt) of milk--about eleven and a half gallons. Prices this year are lower than they've been in decades. The top two lines on the chart above show prices during 2007 and 2008, which were pretty good. Farmers generally broke even during 2005 (the middle line around $14/cwt), but 2006 was horrible and this year has been even worse. Even now, a typical dairy farmer loses several dollars per hundredweight--at least $0.15/gallon--while store prices only gradually inch downwards.

The current price situation results from farmers setting milk-production records just when recession-hit consumers started spending less in the dairy section. Since the United States has no system for balancing out these sorts of shifts in supply and demand, the dairy industry has been spending its own money to "retire" milking herds--paying farmers to beef their cows. This helped a bit, but the only real hope is economic recovery and higher demand for dairy products.

European farmers have not been as subtle about their economic pain. French agriculture protests are not new, but the picture above shows ethnic-Dutch Belgian farmers spraying almost a million gallons of milk on their fields rather than deliver it at a steep loss. Even European Union subsidies have not been able to cushion the crisis in the dairy industry. People are thinking hard about more sustainable models for milk; we can only hope that they are now adopted and work.

Friday, September 25, 2009

First returns on 2009 grant season

The USDA announced the bulk of its Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) awards on Thursday. If you page all the way to the bottom of the announcement, past hundreds of Midwestern projects, you can find Farm Power Lynden's award: a $500,000 grant plus a $2.4 million loan guarantee! Once again, Shorebank Pacific stepped up for the loan portion, strengthening their bid to be the premier green power lender in the state. This year continued the trend towards smaller grants, so we only had a little competition from a couple wind turbine projects for the largest loan/grant combo of 2009. FP Lynden needs more development before it's ready to go, but this is a great start.

Along with a smaller round announced several weeks earlier, the total national REAP funding exceeds $75 million. A small amount of this has been directed to feasibility studies, but otherwise this program is one of only a few available to small businesses that actually funds construction (rather than research). One blogger suggested that REAP be renamed "Renewable Energy for Iowa Program", but it's good to see other states outside the Midwest getting into the action; our state USDA office would love to help more people put together competitive applications--give them a call!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Manure in the news

The media advisory for our ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 28th went out yesterday and triggered another round of interest in manure-to-energy. An article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (a newspaper that recently abandoned paper for online) has been picked up by a number of other news sources. The author's focus on manure led to a gallons-per-kWh statistic that is a bit skewed by the wash water that mixes with the poo on the farms and the food-processing waste that we mix in at the digester. But the fact remains that manure--pouring from the pipe above at hundreds of gallons per minute--is reliably turning into electricity at our anaerobic digester. As long as we keep the facility maintained and the cows keep eating, the electricity will continue to flow.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Liquid fuels grant us another road trip

I spent Labor Day driving back from Colorado, where I had attended my cousin's wedding. Due to a meandering route on the way down, the total trip stretched to about four thousand miles. My Prius sipped fuel at an average rate of 48mpg despite climbing one mountain pass after another, so gasoline for the entire trip cost less than $250.

We are still living at the peak of civilization when two days average American wages can fuel leisure travel halfway across the country. We burned one gallon of gasoline just to go out of our way to visit PSE's Wild Horse Wind and Solar Center; there I found special parking for my Prius!

Slow Money

The Slow Money Alliance just wrapped up its first national gathering last week; combining ideas from the sustainable investing and slow food movements, Slow Money has also been getting some press. We move in some of the same circles as Slow Money people, and we fully agree on the need to re-align capital and sustenance. From Farm Power's perspective, the key is to get that capital moving into tangible projects.

During the successive investment booms of the past decade, money poured into increasingly "weightless" concepts; one common feature of websites, commodities derivatives, and collateralized debt obligations is that they were a collection of money and ideas rather than physical capital. People made enormous fortunes without ever producing a widget, building a facility, or buying any land. We've since discovered that this form of wealth creation is unsustainable; unfortunately, the sustainable investment movement continues to work with the same tools and concepts.

We've poured over three million dollars into our first anaerobic digester project. Now it's finally starting to pay off: each day thousands of gallons of waste turn into a truckload of digested fiber and enough electricity to run a house for more than a year. This physical capital requires steady attention; yesterday I wrestled with a hose full of manure, and that won't be the last time. Financial returns will accumulate over the next few decades--the definition of slow money. But we're producing green power, reducing greenhouse gases, paying farmers, and processing waste in a very tangible way. We are able to do this because local investors--and Shorebank--were willing to commit their money for the long haul.

Tomorrow I'm leaving for the Agriculture 2.0 conference, where I will give a short presentation on Farm Power. I'm hopeful that I'll meet plenty of people who want to create new tools and concepts for capital investing that can sustain us. My advice to the slow money movement: join companies and investors who are already building sustainable agriculture--start investing and learn while funding real projects.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Lecture at the Burlington Library

I've been invited to speak as part of the Skagit "Living Green" Lecture Series; it's at the Burlington library on Thursday night at 7pm, and all are welcome. Now that we are up and running, I get to make some changes to our standard presentation--shifting from future to present tense!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Biogas to Electricity

I continue to post pictures even though digesters aren't that photogenic--all that's going on in the shot above is some numbers appearing on the displays to let us know we've just exported our first electricity to the grid. A huge milestone for Farm Power, but just not that great a visual. This took place on Friday evening; by mid-morning Saturday, the genset had been pushed up to its maximum 750kW output. Since then, output has fluctuated along with our biogas supply, but managing that for improvement is a lot more fun with the meter spinning.

Monday, August 17, 2009


If you look closely, you can see a faint yellow flame above our flare--that's biogas being burned off! We started adding fresh manure to the digester a week ago, and the bacteria have responded. Since our generator won't be cleared to deliver electricity until next week, we have to flare the biogas. This is already progress, though, since we're using manure that would otherwise be emitting methane in a lagoon; combusting that methane leaves much-less-potent carbon dioxide. Almost two and a half years after we first decided to test the carbon-offset business, we're finally starting to do our part.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Local cheese

I love cheddar cheese. I eat it on sandwiches, crackers, and tacos. In recent years, Americans have been finding ways to consume more and more cheese; some analysts attribute much of this trend to gourmet pizza.

One might begin to be concerned for the health of America's arteries. However, American cheese consumption runs well behind many European countries, often countries with better average health. The data in the chart above is from 2003, but it shows the typical American--eating 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cheese annually--coming in well behind the typical German, Greek, or Italian. Love of cheese clearly crosses palate boundaries. Other data shows that Europeans also drink more milk and enjoy more butter than Americans too, yet suffer from less heart disease.

European food culture seems to have evolved over the centuries into cheese consumption patterns more sustainable than ours. As a result, some celebrate the rise of American artisan cheese makers. Skagit County is home to two small dairy creameries--Samish Bay and Golden Glen, located within a few miles of each other. But most cheese in the region comes from creameries run by Tillamook Cheese and Darigold, and this cheese is practically being given away. Wholesale prices remain stuck at just over one dollar a pound; dairy farmers would be happy to see a stronger cheese culture emerge a little more quickly in the United States.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The past two years have been tough for the ethanol industry. The blue portion of the graph above (from Iowa State University) shows typical operating profits for ethanol production; when these profits drop below the black line, a typical ethanol plant starts to have trouble paying back its investors and creditors. The purple part of the graph represents the cost of corn; in 2008, rising corn prices squeezed ethanol producers, but it took the ensuing price collapse to drive leader Verasun and others into bankruptcy. No plants were built in Washington state, but two Oregon producers filed Chapter 11.

Ethanol has been good for corn farmers but bad for just about everyone else. Ethanol-driven high corn prices filtered through to drive up the cost of other agricultural products last year, raising input costs for dairy farmers and clobbering them just as milk demand started to fall. Ethanol production consumed huge amounts of energy (mainly natural gas) in an age-old process where a third of the corn's weight just ends up as carbon dioxide byproduct. Taxpayers provided five billion dollars in subsidies to drive the cost of ethanol low enough to compete with gasoline, but those same taxpayers weren't excited to find this new fuel didn't contain as much energy per gallon.

But until other alternatives actually emerge, corn ethanol is what we have; privately-held and community-owned companies are innovating to avoid the fate of their publicly-traded peers. Surviving leader POET has started up an anaerobic digester at a South Dakota plant to eventually replace natural gas usage, while other plants burn different forms of biomass for process heat. POET is also emerging as the most credible producer of cellulosic ethanol (not made from food products), quietly passing dozens of more-hyped companies working in that space. The industry is still a bit dazed, but all is not lost.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Time to read the directions

As I write this, Andgar is setting the last major pieces of equipment at the Rexville digester; the stainless-steel rectangle in the middle of the photo is a "separator" which--as its name suggests will separate fiber out of the processed digester effluent. We have a full tank of manure; we'll start taking fresh manure next week, when the tank will be warmed closer to its final 100-degree operating temperature. We have also given notice--under brand-new state regulations--that we intend to start mixing food-processing waste with the manure to further delight our resident bacteria; if you have some pre-consumer food waste that is currently being composted or landfilled, contact us! (farmpowernw[at]gmail.com)

Just in case you thought we were sitting around waiting for the manure to warm up, here are two stories out of Whatcom County--home to more dairy cows than all other counties in Western Washington combined. Articles in both the Bellingham Herald and the Bellingham Business Journal highlighted the value of green energy in driving economic development during this stubbornly-persistent recession. By tapping the power of manure, we hope to play a role in local economies throughout Western Washington.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The digester finally gets dirty

On the hottest day so far this year, we're taking 1.1 million gallons of stored manure out of the neighboring lagoon and filling our digester; we are finally starting to cut methane emissions (at 93 degrees Fahrenheit, those bacteria are definitely active). Fresher manure will be added during the next month, with electricity production beginning during that time. The picture is of one of the newly-installed power poles running along the road for almost two miles north of the project; the old pole still stands, just with its top sawed off. It's been almost two and a half years, but we're almost there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cool Maps--No. 2

NPR put out a spectacularly information-dense electricity map several months ago. You can get to the image above by choosing the "Power Plants" tab and then selecting coal; the circles represent the amount of electricity produced by each plant. Due to varying technology, the amount of coal burned or the level of emissions per unit of electricity can vary widely for power plants. The "Power Plants" map is less accurate for some other sources; sometimes the web of ownership for wind farms or cogeneration facilities gets pretty tangled, but for coal and nuclear this is an amazing resource.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cool Maps--No. 1

Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute built this historical oil imports map that follows the sources of our petroleum through the events of the last thirty-five years. The image above is from early 1983, when a combination of high prices, recession, and new Alaskan production had driven oil imports back below where they had been a decade earlier (less than three million barrels per day). Better yet, most of non-domestic oil came from Mexico at that point. The picture today looks bleaker; check it out, and remember that current U.S. production is about five million barrels per day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Don't bet against the wind

During the energy price spike in the summer of 2008, wind power looked poised to change the world; capacity expansion set records and and billionaire T. Boone Pickens proposed wind as the key to independence from imported oil. Less than a year later, wind installations are falling off and the "Pickens Plan" has stalled.

But I wouldn't start betting against the wind industry yet. Steady technological progress means that turbines can produce more efficiently at more locations than ever. The map below shows how average wind speeds in otherwise-unimpressive Indiana increase for higher turbine mountings--50 meter hub heights were typical in the 1990s, 70 meters after the year 2000, but 100 meters will be common next year. At that height, the entire northern half of the state becomes economical.

And more advanced turbines ensure the economics; recently-introduced designs for lower-speed onshore wind regimes include the Vestas V100 (1.8MW), Acciona AW-116/3000 (3MW), and the Siemens SWT-2.3-101 (2.3MW). These turbines are scaled-up versions of proven generators with blade diameters of one hundred meters or more. The wind industry is likely to see similar conditions to natural gas--an essentially limitless resource constrained primarily by economics. Like horizontal drilling in shale gas formations, the new "superturbines" will be able to generate power across vast swathes of the country, but they will only be built when electricity prices rise above a certain floor.

Federal incentives and emerging carbon restrictions will likely push the wind industry back to record levels in the next year or two. We will probably be surprised how easily wind meets one ambitious 20%-by-2030 goal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Biogas to Wheels

A half-hour north of us in Bellingham, students at Western Washington University's Vehicle Research Institute are working on one potential transportation future. Several years ago, they built Viking 32, a hybrid-electric sports car fueled by compressed biogas from the nearby VanderHaak anaerobic digester.

Next, the team plans to scale up the biogas-filtering system to provide fuel for buses. In rough terms, the annual biogas yield from one cow's manure is equal to 150 gallons of diesel, so there's definitely a transportation opportunity. The WWU students will primarily be working through other issues, such as cleaning and pressurizing the gas economically. Overall, society will have to decide when to embrace compressed natural gas as a vehicle fuel.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Coal, it keeps on rollin'

Washington state gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams and hosts only one medium-sized coal plant. But recently I began to notice trainloads of coal rolling north through my hometown of Mount Vernon, a unwelcome reminder of how the rest of the world gets its power. These occasional trains bring coal from the American interior (probably Wyoming) to Vancouver, BC, where--along with plenty of coal from Alberta--it is shipped to Asian markets.

The picture above shows trains loading in the legendary Powder River Basin, where Montana and Wyoming host the world's largest coal mines. One trainload of coal can move up to 15,000 tons; if this is lower-energy Powder River Basin coal, it will add roughly 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned (and, arguably just as disturbing, about two pounds of mercury). Each day, some seventy trains leave the Powder River mines.

The sheer scale of this movement is fascinating; I enjoyed a series of stories on coal trains by John McPhee that first appeared in the New Yorker and then became part of a book. But it's also daunting to those in the renewable-energy and greenhouse-gas-reduction worlds; for example, our first digester will have to run for almost three years to offset the emissions from just one coal train.

While we as a nation don't seem to have the political will to pull coal back from supplying half of our electricity, energy markets are giving us a bit of hope. The Energy Information Administration provides weekly updates on coal markets, and coal production has dropped somewhat this spring--likely due to pressure from sustained low natural gas prices. We have a nearly-incomprehensible amount of work to do before replacing coal, but--as I said in an earlier post--shifting to natural gas won't hurt.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Washington state tries to join solar party?

Previously-unknown Teanaway Solar Reserve appeared with a splash last week, announcing plans to build a 75MW photovoltaic project in central Washington. So far, they have a location and a lot of frothy press; what's not as clear is whether their business model extends much further.

The map above shows that the country's best solar potential lies in the Southwest; not only do these areas get lots of sun, but their highest electrical demand--air-conditioning--occurs when solar energy is also near its peak. In comparison, other parts of the country get less sun and need the most power during the dark days of winter. So it's not surprising that California has three times more solar power capacity than the rest of the country combined.

This doesn't mean that photovoltaic (PV) panels don't work in large swathes of the country; they do, but they are a money-losing proposition. An article on the economics of solar power lays out the range of yield on investment for a project in an area--like Central Washington--that gets about 25% less sun than the Southwest: about 1,500kWh per year per kW of panels installed.

The 1,500kWh/kWp in the chart below means that the PV panels produce 17.1% of the power they could if the sun shown day and night, year round (this is a fair comparison, since most other energy technologies don't depend directly on the sun and produce at 80-90% of their annual potential, including renewables such as biomass and geothermal). Federal incentives extended during the past year cut the cost to build by about half, so it's not unreasonable to assume a project like Teanaway Solar could complete a project at a net price of only $3.00/watt peak. The problem is that a large solar project in the Northwest will likely have to sell its power for many years no more than $0.10/kWh. At that rate, the chart shows a yield on money invested of only 5%--and out of this must come taxes, insurance, and maintenance before any of it can be used to repay lenders or investors.

Since investors and bankers typically don't commit large sums of money for near-zero yields, the Teanaway Solar promoters must believe that renewable energy markets will shift massively in the future--perhaps a tripling of electricity prices, even more lucrative government incentives, or an unprecendented fall in the price of PV technology. That isn't a very good business plan. It fell to the pro-business-as-usual Washington Policy Center to point out the obvious problems with the plan, including that the project would cost several times more than even nearby wind installations and that other high-hype/shaky-economics energy showpieces haven't turned out well.

I know quite a few good people who have been working hard on solar for many years; I'm just hoping a near-inevitable reversal for Teanaway Solar doesn't reflect badly on the wider regional industry. And I surely hope this doesn't give the remaining detractors of renewable energy more ammunition--the next couple years aren't going to be any easier for green power, so this is my marker to help protect the brand. Let's under-promise and over-deliver; we don't have to be like California--we can have our own party.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Climate Trust website

The Climate Trust, a pioneering non-profit based in Portland, is buying our carbon offsets. Their initial interest helped launch Farm Power back in 2007, and we finally negotiated a deal with them in December. Now the Climate Trust has a beautiful new website with a page that features our first project! The page includes a link to the registry that has our project documents, a big step forward in transparency for those who really want to know where their offsets come from. Of course, we believe the best transparency is to have accessible projects that can be visited by interested stakeholders; we're having yet another tour next Saturday if you're interested.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shorebank finally goes public with Farm Power

We've been working with Shorebank Pacific for almost two years, and their money started entering our first digester project earlier this spring. Last week, the bank finally issued a press release. We got a brief mention in the Sustainable Industries Journal version, which focused more on the other Skagit County company who closed a deal with Shorebank. Renewable energy finance hasn't gotten any easier recently, so we're thrilled to be working with this green banking pioneer.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Heart of a Digester

We hosted another great tour today at our site; as usual, the highlight was our 750kW engine-generator set. The bright orange Guascor (pronounced "wah-score" here and probably different yet again in its home Basque region) has given us quite a few attractive pictures (most recently, with Daryl in a small local newspaper); in person, the massive machine is even more impressive. A genset gives a digester its economic reason for existence--our ten-year contract to sell electricity to Puget Sound Energy secures the entire project. In addition, the genset will produce all the hot water we need to keep the manure in the digester warm. Our contractor continues to install all the pipes and wires needed to be operational in August. Watch our website--we'll probably have another tour in July.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Back in the public eye

This past winter, the occasional news about Farm Power involved our legislative efforts; now, with the coming of spring, our public profile has been increasing. Our local newspaper's monthly business magazine ran a story on us in their April issue (page four of the online page-turning format) that quite a few people noticed (and with a cover photo like the one above, who wouldn't?!).

A few weeks later, we received a permit from the state to offer Farm Power equity directly to middle-class investors--a pretty unique type of fundraising. We started running advertisements in newspapers like the one below and holding public meetings. The poster promotes our meeting in Bellingham on Thursday June 25th, but the full schedule is available on our website. We've met new people from across the Northwest, interested in the investment potential at the intersection of agriculture and energy.

Since pictures can never tell the whole story, we have also given one public tour of our rapidly-nearing-completion Rexville project; another tour is scheduled for this Saturday, June 27th. Our 750kW engine-generator set looks even more impressive in person. We expect to start filling the digester with manure in less than a month, so come by while things are still clean and new--we'll be meeting at the Rexville Grocery at 10:30am (you can grab a coffee first) and then driving over together. We hope to see you there!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Natural Gas Century

Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest and the least carbon-intensive. Many projections show its usage continuing to increase in coming years even as oil production peaks and climate concerns reduce coal consumption. Unfortunately, proven natural gas reserves will only last a few decades at expected production rates. If only there was more of it around....

The chart above shows trading prices for the December 2009 futures contract. For three years, the market believed that early-winter natural gas was worth somewhere around $9.00 per thousand cubic feet (or MMbtu). Prices spiked last summer and then collapsed; although oil has recovered strongly since then, natural gas remains near its lows, with the market now saying early-winter gas is worth only about $6.00/MMbtu. Something has definitely changed.

That something is unconventional gas reserves. American natural gas production surged last year as increasing numbers of shale gas wells came online. New technology allows drilling in rock previously too impermeable to yield any gas, suddenly changing everyone's calculations around natural gas reserves. New estimates predict that the United States, rather than facing slow but steady production decline, might have enough gas to produce for the rest of the century--a quiet but hugely-important story for the petroleum industry.

This article looks at the international implications; although the author's numbers appear to be off by an order of magnitude, unlocking unconventional gas would completely change Europe's energy picture. But not yet: "while there is no active shale development project outside the US, testing is continuing on the commercial viability of some shales."

More natural gas would mean cheaper natural gas, reducing the appeal of coal; this would be good news from almost every angle. Producing electricity by burning natural gas rather than coal cuts CO2 emissions by roughly 60% and emissions of much nastier stuff (like mercury) to practically nothing. The challenge of replacing our coal-dependent electrical-generation capacity is so enormous that more plentiful gas reserves could actually ensure that natural gas fulfills its hoped-for promise as a bridge fuel to a sustainable future. Compared to many other scenarios, a 21st century fueled by natural gas is one I could handle.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Where is our green power?

In my experience, people often unknowingly divide green power sources into types they've seen (solar, or sometimes wind) and more exotic types they'd like to see (tidal, for example). The Renewable Northwest Project list of green power sites
follows this pattern; it includes wind, solar, geothermal, and even some rather speculative wave/tidal projects, but it does not includes any biomass. And why should it? Biomass projects are not as common as solar, not as majestic as wind, and not as futuristic as tidal.

In short, waste-to-energy does not photograph well. The picture above is a 28MW wood-burning plant that also provides steam to a lumber mill. Similar plants can run on natural gas or coal, making distinguishing green energy difficult. However, cogeneration of electricity and steam is one of the most efficient processes we've invented, and burning waste for "combined heat and power" (or CHP, another name for cogeneration) becomes the very definition of sustainability.

Well, if simply being industrial-looking is acceptable for green energy, perhaps people don't notice cogeneration because it's relatively rare. Well, let's compare it to wind. According to the American Wind Energy Association project list, Washington currently has 1479MW of wind turbines at ten separate sites; Oregon has a few less turbines but a couple more sites. Estimated energy production is about as much as a large coal-fired power plant, but less predictable. A much less-well-known database of combined heat and power plants gives up its numbers grudgingly, but it shows that Washington is home to almost 300MW of wood-burning cogeneration plants while Oregon hosts 400MW, spread all across the two states supplying heat to about thirty lumber mills and paper plants. Although these green electricity generators produce only about half as much power each year as the Northwest's wind turbines, the CHP facilities are much more likely to be running when the electricity is most needed.

So combined heat and power is more widely distributed than wind, more reliable, AND super-sustainable; to its detriment, the technology can't claim to be new--some of these plants have been producing electricity for decades. So while solar photovoltaic gets tremendous attention along with enormous subsidies, cogeneration keeps producing a hundred times more power at competitive prices.

I hope that the lack of visibility doesn't keep people from considering the potential of waste-burning CHP for non-timber-industry applications like district heating. This has the potential to scale up rapidly and make a difference much more quickly than newer technologies; green power has been coming from Northwest forests for years, and I hope it comes to a neighborhood near you soon.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Wait 'til the farmers see me in my Prius!

I just bought a 2004 Toyota Prius. It has little dings around the edges, but it still runs well and gets over 50mpg. Replacing my long-serving 1988 Honda Accord wasn't easy, but the Prius looks to be up to the task!

When the warranty expires in about six months, I'd like to try converting the Prius to a plug-in electric vehicle (PHEV). Unfortunately, battery packs like the Hymotion cost about $10,000. That price requires some serious reflection on my long-term driving plans. If I drive the PHEV Prius into the ground, perhaps putting another 170,000 miles on it over the next eleven years, I might look back from the year 2020 and say the conversion was worth it....let's do some calculations and try to find out.

First, the basics on PHEVs: they make a lot of sense for shorter trips, either allowing all-electric driving for 10-20 miles at lower speeds or doubling the already high gas mileage of a Prius for faster 30-40 mile drives. Automakers keep talking about selling new plug-in hybrids, but since cars like the Chevy Volt remain in the uncertain future, current examples almost all feature battery conversions of a Prius. These cars must be plugged in all night for a full charge, but this can be done at any outlet and having the gas engine for backup means PHEVs won't leave their drivers stranded by the side of the road when the batteries run dry.

Much of my driving consists of 10-20 mile trips; I only get on the freeway to leave the county about once a week. I'm going to assume that over half of my miles would be battery-powered, a total of 8,000 miles a year (for example, a round trip from my house to the Rexville digester site is about sixteen miles and can be done on back roads driving less than 35mph--if I'm the one who has to visit the project every day, I would put on almost 6,000 all-electric miles a year). Going battery-only on some trips (and battery-assist on many more) will save about three gallons of gasoline a week compared to just driving an unmodified Prius while adding roughly 30kWh to my power bill. At current prices, I'd save about six dollars a week in fuel costs.

I expect the price of both gasoline and electricity to be higher in 2020. Some of the inflation will likely be due to greenhouse-gas regulation, which makes exact comparison difficult. But let's just assume that after subtracting any carbon tax, gasoline costs $5.00/gallon and retail electricity costs $0.13/kWh. In 2020, I'd be saving about eleven dollars a week in fuel costs; over the course of eleven years, I would have saved a total of $5,000 dollars. That's about half the cost of the PHEV conversion.

I subtracted the fuel carbon cost above so I could fairly estimate the real greenhouse-gas savings from driving a PHEV; it looks like I'll have to consider the other half of the plug-in cost as a contribution to slowing climate change. By 2020, my gasoline reduction would be responsible for avoiding fourteen metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, the calculations don't stop there. Since roughly half of Puget Sound Energy's electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, the new electricity I'll use for driving each year will add hundreds of pounds of CO2 emissions. My total net reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions is unlikely to exceed ten metric tons. Those are expensive tons; I'd pay about $500 per avoided ton of CO2!

PHEVs aren't going to save the world. The increased efficiency of electric driving pales in comparison to serious transporation solutions like commuter trains and better bus systems, while larger projects (like anaerobic manure digesters) can cut greenhouse-gas emissions much more quickly and economically. I hope the battery conversion kits come down in price; I may still get one if they don't. It's a subject that deserves plenty of reflection.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Book That Made a Difference

I read Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher about ten years ago; much of the book was written thirty years earlier. I remember Schumacher's words resonating strongly at that point in my life; now that I've found that I'm meant to be in the manure-to-energy business, the resonance starts to make more sense.

I've run across several references to Small Is Beautiful recently, including this one several days ago on a peak oil website. The author of the piece picked out several propositions from Schumacher's economic ideas, two of which are below:
  • First, primary goods (those produced by or extracted from nature--vegetables, coal, lumber, etc) "must come first in any economic analysis because they supply the preconditions for production of secondary goods" (everything else, made from those goods). There are many ways to build a house, for example, but only a tree can produce wood.
  • Second, energy "is the gateway resource that allows all other resources to be extracted". Cheap energy allows us to many other things cheaply; the harder it is to obtain energy (think deepwater oil wells), the less resources we have for everything else. This is why we like the 20-to-1 return on energy used to run an anaerobic digester, and we like being in the energy business.
Schumacher also thought a lot about "appropriate technology"; he only saw the first rounds of globalization, so he really wouldn't be impressed by advanced factories in China producing DVD players for export while nearby peasants farm with hand tools. We won't be producing many jobs, but we are glad that manure digesters are relatively low-tech--most repair can be accomplished locally, and we aren't destroying anyone's livelihood by undercutting a more labor-intensive process. So read Small Is Beautiful if you get a chance--if it doesn't appeal to you now, you never know what you might think of it ten years down the road.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Farm Power connections

Now that it's summer, we at Farm Power are finally getting to work on long-delayed projects. To keep everyone updated, we're trying to provide more outlets for news. Yielding to the 21st century, we've finally set up a Farm Power twitter account and are learning how to use it. The Farm Power Facebook group has been around for a year, but we're using it more now.

And what is the news that needs outlets? Well, construction is accelerating--the digester tank is almost complete and the roof panels will start going on in early June. We have also received a permit from the state to raise more money to help fund future projects, something we're pretty excited about; the word is starting to spread and we're holding public meetings throughout Western Washington. I can't guarantee a steady stream of updates, but enough is going on that there will be plenty to talk about--I hope you keep following our progress.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday

Farm Power turned two yesterday, on Good Friday. Late the previous evening, the Washington State House of Representatives gave us an early birthday present, passing SB5797 by a vote of 97-0. We've been working on this bill for almost three months, making regular trips down to Olympia to visit our elected representatives and testify in front of committees. The "Sundial" on the picture above was a common meeting spot, located right between the two main legislative office buildings.

SB5797 allows anaerobic manure digesters to add a portion of food processing wastes (which feed more efficient bacteria methane production) without putting the regulatory "solid waste" designation on the manure supplied by dairy farmers. This solves one of our biggest challenges; co-digesting manure with food-processing waste makes digesters efficient enough to operate without subsidies, but no dairy farmers would accept this if it turned them into solid waste handlers. Passing this legislation, with the cooperation of the Departments of Ecology and Agriculture, lays out the rules for optimized energy production from digesters.

Many of our friends and neighbors were concerned after the Skagit Valley Herald broke the story on this issue, but the paper has been running regular updates on the legislative progress. We look forward to the bill making its final trip--to the governor's desk--and then becoming part of the Revised Code of Washington. We'd like to thank SB5797's prime sponsor, Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, secondary sponsors Senators Ranker, Brandland, and Hatfield, and the rest of the manure digester community for getting this legislation to the finish line.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It's Not A Joke--Just Economics

Yesterday, at my local market, I purchased a gallon of generic 2% milk for $1.89 and a two-pound block of Tillamook cheddar for $4.99. Again, I wasn't finding falling prices at a WalMart Supercenter or buying off a pallet at Costco--just stopping at the little downtown Mount Vernon Red Apple. I haven't seen prices like this in years; farmers are getting about one dollar a gallon for their milk right now, so it had to filter through to the consumers eventually. Those farmers are also losing at least $0.25 for every gallon they produce. It takes almost two and a half gallons of milk to make a block of cheese, so the farmer-owners of the Tillamook Creamery have got to be hurting too (especially as their directors pursue growth in the desert and through acquisitions).

One year ago, consumers from the rest of the booming Pacific Rim were eagerly buying a significant portion of the Northwest's milk products. Now, international demand has collapsed while Americans cut back on their cheese and ice cream. It's a perfect storm for dairy farmers, who can only hope for economic recovery and milk supply cuts from cooperative-funded cow-reduction programs. The stimulus package doesn't contain a dairy section, so we need people to respond as the economics textbooks predict--buy some more of that cheap cheese and enjoy it!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Farm Power Visibility

If this blog provides your primary perspective on the operations of Farm Power, you and other readers may easily start to think that life is pretty quiet at our little company....but you would be wrong. Between the regular pushes necessary to keep our first project moving towards completion, we've been keeping very busy both at home and in the region.

We had another reminder of all the support we've benefited from when we were nominated for Skagit County Startup Business of the Year. At a banquet put on by Northwest Business Monthly magazine, we ended up being chosen for the honor in front of hundreds of local businesspeople.

A Seattle Times article two weeks ago focused on the digester recently brought online by Qualco Energy just south of Monroe. We received a few lines at the end of the piece, including mention of our work near Enumclaw in southeastern King County--an effort we had quietly announced on our website a few days before.

So, some news makes it onto the website first or shows up on the Farm Power Facebook group before being posted here. Plenty will be happening during the coming weeks, so we'll do our best to keep the information flowing so you never doubt we're staying busy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Green Drinks" comes to Mount Vernon

Who has complained about the limited sustainability community in Skagit County? I must admit that I have, but those complaints will soon become a thing of the past: after a great turnout at Renewable Energy night last week, it also looks like the "Green Drinks" movement has come to town to stay. Mount Vernon is the latest (and smallest) community in Washington state to start a sustainability-themed after-work gathering. This month, the Trumpeter Public House right downtown is hosting Green Drinks on Tuesday the 24th from 5-7pm. If any readers are in the area, I hope to see you there.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Renewable Energy at Skagit Human Rights Festival

I will be at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon this Thursday evening (March 5th) for Renewable Energy night. The 56-minute documentary "Kilowatt Ours" will be shown at 7pm, followed by a panel including yours truly. Other panelists are wind developers and energy efficiency experts. This is about as local as we can get--gathering with others from Skagit County concerned about sustainability; if you are able, please join us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economic Stimulus

Last week, Snohomish County PUD announced it had agreed to buy power from an Oregon wind farm. This "Hay Canyon" purchase comes several months after a similarly-sized deal for power from a project with a similarly-bland name, Wheat Field, also located in north-central Oregon.

Why would a citizen-owned Washington utility look south of the Columbia River for renewable energy? The answer is simple: subsidies. Oregon provides a tax credit of up to $10 million to renewable energy projects built in the state; although each of the wind farms mentioned above will cost around $200 million to build, the credit must make Oregon's electricity slightly cheaper than unsubsidized Washington green power.

Not everyone is thrilled about the attractiveness of Oregon's subsidies; some residents argue against providing benefits to out-of-state energy buyers. What is undeniable, however, is that building renewable energy projects in this economy makes a huge difference to workers and communities nearby. A 100-MW wind project like Hay Canyon or Wheat Field typically provides over a hundred jobs during construction, adds a dozen permanent maintenance positions, and pays a half-million dollars a year in property taxes. For the people working these jobs and the counties gaining tax revenue, location matters.

We finally started pouring concrete on Thursday. Our contractor handles materials purchasing, but confirmation calls from local suppliers show the impact Farm Power spending has. Drivers at Skagit Ready Mix care very much that this digester is being built here rather than Oregon; employees of Mount Vernon Building Supply probably feel the same way. Good policy should find a way to encourage both the purchase of green power and its production as close to home as possible.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


The new year begins with a sense of ominous foreboding in the dairy community. The chart above shows the milk price returning to where it was two years ago. During the summer of 2007, dairy farmers were making quite a bit of money; they continued to do well until input prices (especially grain, diesel, and alfalfa hay) caught up with them last summer. Farmers are now seeing some serious red ink, and the milk futures market looks absolutely appalling.

Farmers have come to expect bruising price cycles, but the swings during the past few years are unprecedented. It takes a uniquely durable type of person to get up each morning and work a fourteen-hour day taking care of cows while knowing they are going to lose a thousand dollars before bedtime. And yet the milk continues to show up on the store shelves.

Many of the families who still run dairy farms are deeply religious; at times, only belief in the wisdom of a higher plan can keep people in such a low-margin, capital-intensive business.

We at Farm Power share the faith of these dairy farmers, the belief that God is absolutely sovereign and carries out His plan through people whether they accept Him or not. During nearly two years of work, we have been protected in more ways than we know. What others might call successes, sometimes we can only call blessings, unachievable by us on our own.

At the groundbreaking, our pastor read Psalm 8 and prayed "Bless this anaerobic digester." We thank God for our community, our families, and bringing us this far; we pray that He will bless those who are struggling in this economy and our work to bring some relief.