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.