Wednesday, December 8, 2010
But what if we diverted all this organic waste--perhaps sending it in special pipes to small, energy-producing local digesters? One pound per person per day, converted into biogas, can be burned to produce about one kilowatt-hour of electricity--with enough extra heat (left over after warming the digester) to bring five gallons of water to a comfortable temperature for showering. Unfortunately, the typical American needs about twelve kilowatt-hours for household use, along with similarly excessive amounts of heat.
So there, in short, is why I focus on dairy manure: it produces far more energy than the farms could ever use and involves a lower "yuck factor" than what we dump and flush!
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Meanwhile, our friends at NW Farms & Food recently wrote an story on our progress; like all the articles on the website, this one combines depth with clarity, but it also managed to capture the genesis of Farm Power better than I'd ever heard it expressed--with one of my quotes, no less!
"I was thinking about manure digesters [in 2004], but I figured that by the time I could do anything, half the farmers in the county would already be working on their own project. Lo and behold a year later — nothing. Nothing at all!”And we continue to work every day to get digesters built throughout the Pacific Northwest, coming up with little innovations that--unexceptional by themselves--add up to real renewable energy projects that otherwise wouldn't happen. Construction on Farm Power Lynden is nearly complete, and regular readers know we're pushing forward on other biogas installations. I'll try to post a little more often this fall to keep spreading the word online as well as on the road.
“So that’s when we headed down this path,” he said. “If nobody was doing it, yet it was clear that it could be done, that it should be done, then we just had to figure out a better way to do it!”
Thursday, August 19, 2010
We've also been getting out in the community a bit, finally attracting the attention of business/tech website Xconomy after giving an update at the Northwest Energy Angels summer social. And two different websites dedicated to spreading good ideas have Farm Power material: NWCleanTech--a new site focused on "connecting regional innovation"--added Farm Power to its list of featured Pacific Northwest companies and also put us on their cool interactive map, while a member of Planet Forward--a project from George Washington University--put together a multi-media post called "Visiting an Anaerobic Methane Digester" after touring the Rexville facility.
Speaking of tours, we've scheduled one more tour for Saturday, August 21st. We'll be meeting at 11am by the picnic shelter next to the Rexville Grocery, giving a little overview, and then proceeding to the digester. Afterwards, I look forward to relaxing back at the Rexville's mini-restaurant and continuing to discuss renewable energy; we're still raising money for a little while longer, so come get your questions answered.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Last year around this time, we still had yet to fill our first digester's tank with manure; how things have changed. Now--besides all the operating experience from running Farm Power Rexville near Mount Vernon--our second digester is under construction, our third project has been financed and is in permitting, and we just received a $1 million grant from the Oregon Department of Energy for a Tillamook installation! The Tillamook region features dozens of medium-sized farms that pasture extensively in a temperature environment. It's an ideal location for one of our multi-farm community digesters. We've been talking to area farmers for over a year and are happy to be able to move forward; some locals have been happy to hear about us as well and we quickly received good coverage in the Tillamook Headlight-Herald.
To help us fund this rapid expansion, we are going back out to our supporters to raise more equity--by selling ownership units in Farm Power. For angel investors, we've been posting information on AngelSoft and we can take money from accredited investors anywhere in the United States. However, we are most excited about our ability to accept investment from a broad swathe of Washington State residents through a small public offering; an info sheet on the offering can be found at our company homepage. Anyone interested in further information can request our offering circular by contacting us or writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the best ways to understand what we do is to attend one of our upcoming tours, currently scheduled for 10am on Saturday July 24th and 2pm on Tuesday July 27th--we update the schedule regularly at http://www.farmpower.com. We have gotten great support from our current members, and we look forward to expanding the Farm Power membership.
Monday, July 5, 2010
First, we recently posted a YouTube video hoping that our maintenance work could get on the legendary Discover Channel show "Dirty Jobs". Mike Rowe has already done a show involving a manure digester, but we're sure working at ours would be more fun!
Back in March, a local television station did a five-minute segment giving a the best video overview to date of the Rexville project; they also took some footage at the Lynden site, but only a greenhouse was visible at that point so we'll have to wait for another segment to cover our second project.
Finally, for those who want to see manure-to-energy in person, we've scheduled a tour for Wednesday July 14th. We'll be meeting at 2pm by the picnic shelter next to the Rexville Grocery, giving a little overview, and then proceeding to the digester. Since the actual experience can be a bit smelly, don't hit the tour on the way to an important social event, but we do encourage anyone interested to come. Give us a call or send us an E-mail if you have any questions.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
After people had a chance to get some refreshments, we had a short program. Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen spoke about the importance of agriculture; we were also joined by 42nd-District Representatives Kelli Linville and Doug Ericksen as well as Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis. Our regional USDA Rural Development business program representative Sharon Exley talked about building the funding package for the project through the REAP program. Next, we emphasized the importance of Puget Sound Energy and its Green Power program both in our comments and those by PSE's Tom Maclean. Finally, we invited up a whole line of project partners and turned over some shovelfuls of earth!
Whatcom Farm Friends added an event page for the groundbreaking to their project photo album--it already had greenhouse pictures, and Farm Friends will soon start adding construction photos. A reporter from the Bellingham Business Journal wrote a nice little story on the event, and other coverage included an article at the Biomass Magazine website as well as extensive re-printing of the press release from Puget Sound Energy.
We would like to extend our appreciation to everyone who helped us get to groundbreaking--it's taken two years, but the project is underway and very exciting! Stay tuned for further reports.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Well ahead of my once-a-year pace of writing about combined heat and power (CHP), it's already time for another blog posting on the subject. An updated combined heat and power database shows additions in Washington state during the past two years: a couple manure digesters and a small wastewater treatment plant started running engines on biogas, while a landfill is producing upgraded renewable natural gas and a paper mill now burns its waste for process heat and electricity.
Farm Power Rexville keeps running steadily, so not much news to add there. But manure-to-energy continues to be a favorite media topic: a cow-powered data center concept by Hewlett-Packard engineers got lots of attention. While the overall concept isn't news to us, the paper also described cooling with waste heat from engine-generators by "silica gel-water adsorption chillers" which "can be driven by near-ambient temperature heat."
The diagram above shows an elegantly-integrated system capable of providing electricity, heat, and cooling at higher efficiency than anything else I've seen. A boiler allows optimizing of heat output or upgrading hot water to steam. Even if other renewable energy technologies struggle for traction as the era of stimulus draws to a close, the future of ever-smarter CHP gets brighter and brighter.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
The concept of cogeneration--producing both electricity and usable heat--is not new; I wrote about it last year, mainly focusing on the decades-old practice of wood-products plants burning their waste for process heat and power. In the Northwest, such plants already produce as much renewable energy as the region's entire wind industry. However, I believe that vastly-more-widespread cogeneration must play an integral future role in increasing our efficiency--and sustainability. Combined heat and power (CHP) recovers 60-80% of the energy in its fuel; car engines run at only about 20% efficiency. At some point in the coming years, we will no longer have the luxury of wasting 80% of the energy we put into our fuel tanks.
Because CHP uses fuel so much more efficiently than typical power plants, the industry has begun calling it "clean heat and power", or when some of the heat runs an absorption chiller, "clean cooling, heat, and power". Even when burning natural gas rather than biomass, CHP is indeed one of the cleanest options in our energy portfolio. Imagine the effect if that sustainable electricity can be used to replace the combustion of diesel, gasoline, or even biofuel: moving all that heat off the highways, into businesses and even homes that need it, is exactly the kind of radical shift we need for the 21st century.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Last week, Washington's State Energy Program awarded a second round of energy grants and loans through the Commerce Department; a Farm Power affiliate called Rainier Biogas received a $1.4 million grant/loan combo. Rainier Biogas was set up to build a digester in the shadow of Mount Rainier near Enumclaw, a small town about an hour southeast of Seattle. Enumclaw hosts one of the surviving half-dozen clusters of dairy farms in the Puget Sound region; although it is too far from the interstate for intensive building, the century-old farming community is threatened by the typical slide towards a post-agricultural pseudo-economy. Rainier Biogas will help the remaining dairy farmers on the Enumclaw Plateau better manage their manure while becoming self-sufficient in cow bedding from the digester's fiber product. Keeping the farms in the area will retain $30 million in annual local production, a boon for a community that can otherwise look only to tourism and boom-blight exurban building trends.
Not everyone approves of the government picking energy as a stimulus winner; the day of the announcement, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center singled out Rainier Biogas as a particularly wasteful way to create jobs. While both state and federal governments have a spotty record on supporting biofuels projects that actually succeed, manure digesters have consistently provided effective economic impact. It comes down to value judgments that someone must make: energy infrastructure is simply better for the economy than another housing development, and supporting existing agriculture is just more efficient policy than building industry (or worse, service business) where none existed before.
Rainier Biogas: expanding local energy, nutrient, and fiber output on the beautiful Enumclaw Plateau from 2011 for decades into the future.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
The main nutrients plants need are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium--NPK. Most nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas, while legumes such as peas, alfalfa, and soybeans can also fix nitrogen naturally. Unfortunately, we don't have the same plant-based alternate sources of phosphorus and potassium--everything we use is either mined from phosphate and potash deposits or recycled organic matter.
"The absolute worst case scenario, from a nutrient standpoint, is what we are doing today.
Producing any grain (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc) and shipping that food away from where it was grown is the largest depleter of P & K [phosphorus and potassium] from the land. By exporting food out of where it was grown your are exporting your most concentrated nutrients the plants have stored. The process essentially is mining the soil.You want to be exporting only C,H,O,and N off the land. They are all replaced via gases in the atmosphere. A century ago most of the food was recycled where it was grown via animal or human consumption and waste. Not so today. Exporting food from the "interior" to the major cities on the coasts moves P & K away from productive land, essentially into water systems"
Anaerobic digesters offer an opportunity to improve the recycling of nutrients--not only does manure become easier to handle, but food waste can be mixed in and its nutrients returned easily to farmland. It's definitely an improvement over practices other food-waste treatment practices such as composting and water treatment facilities. As long as most compost ends up as landscaping material, the nutrients might as well be gone, and wastewater treatment typically treats nutrients as a problem to be minimized rather than a resource to be recovered.
A movie called "Dirt" has recently gotten quite a bit of attention; I haven't seen it yet, and I suspect it doesn't dwell on specific nutrient issues, but hopefully it has been raising awareness over the importance of caring for the soil. A future with well-balanced agriculture needs plenty of awareness--and good stocks of phosphorus and potassium.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
- older plants not only waste about 70% of the energy in the coal but they also lack pollution control and are simply wearing out
- while the United States has vast amounts of low-grade coal, we're running out of the best stuff (and the Appalachian mountains that are blasted away to get at it)
- burning coal does more to drive climate change than any other human activity
- older refineries were designed to run on the high-quality, low-sulfur ("light sweet") crude oil that flowed from early wells; refitting them to run on the heavier oils more commonly pumped today will be so costly that some refineries will just be shut down
- the United States imports over half its oil, sometimes from places we'd rather not see benefit from our dollars
- transportation emissions are the second largest source of greenhouse gases (after generation of electricity).
The cost of equipment varies inversely with the cost of its feedstock; natural gas is quite expensive, while some biomass can be free or even better. I expect we'll even have some coal-to-liquids conversion, using the extra feedstock freed up by closing the less efficient half of the coal-fired electrical generators. The coal-to-liquids plant cost of $60,000 per barrel offers a good average between the other technologies; at this price, the partial overhaul of our liquid fuel system production system costs almost $400 billion.
So, a cool trillion dollars buys the United States an energy capacity similar to today's but cuts coal and oil consumption by half. It's not complete energy independence and many facilities still require purchased feedstocks. The most interesting question, though, is whether we can afford this trillion-dollar overhaul; the United States has burned through close to that amount of stimulus funding without having a serious impact on energy infrastructure. Is there much hope that we'll focus our efforts better in the future?