Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What about our own waste?

After dozens of posts, readers may be growing impatient with my focus on dairy cow manure. So, for a change of pace, I turn to pondering the organic waste that comes out of own homes--the majority of it food waste but also excrement. This potential energy leaves by two main routes--the sewer system (from both toilets and sink disposals) and the garbage system. In rough terms, each American dumps and flushes a pound of "fuel" every day, to be dispersed in sewage-treatment plants and landfills. I say dispersed because although both wastewater-treatment plants and landfills can be designed to capture some of the energy in garbage and sewage, their main goal is to make waste go away. And the material that arrives at these plants is already heavily diluted by water or inert solids, so energy production remains inefficient.

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

Lynden Approaching Completion

Four months after we broke ground, our Lynden digester project is almost ready to come online. The Bellingham Herald ran a story on our progress (and a great photo of guys from Andgar working on the flare). There are also a lot more pictures in the Whatcom Farm Friends photo galleries on the project.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spreading the word

In a few weeks, I'll be leaving the Pacific Northwest (for the first time in almost a year!) to go speak about the Farm Power experience. On October 18th, I will be joining hundreds of bioenergy professionals in Des Moines for the BioCycle "Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" conference. BioCycle magazine provides regular coverage of the digester industry along with composting and other types of waste recycling, so they draw a wide audience and we hope that BioCycle will bring this conference to our region in the future--by then we hope to have many more projects to talk about.

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!”

“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!”

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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Summer in the manure business

While many people slow down a bit during the summer, we at Farm Power have been steadily accelerating. Our builder Andgar has added a photo page for our Lynden project, showing the rapid construction progress there. It appears likely that our second digester will be completed in half the time it took to build the first one--it helps to build during the summer rather than starting in November!

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

Further growth at Farm Power

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 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 We have gotten great support from our current members, and we look forward to expanding the Farm Power membership.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A digester in action

As Farm Power grows, we keep meeting more and more people who have heard of what we do but have never seen a manure digester; we'd like to start changing that.

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

Farm Power Lynden Construction Underway

Excavation has finally begun on our second digester; nine months after Andgar completed our Rexville project, their team is going back to work on a similar but slightly bigger manure-to-energy plant. We celebrated this important step with a groundbreaking ceremony--almost a hundred farmers, community members, and supporters joined us at the site on a gray but pleasant afternoon.

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

Lynden Groundbreaking June 28th

It's been almost two years since we started exploring manure-to-energy possibilities in Whatcom County, and about a year since we started committing money to a project. So we're thrilled to finally announce groundbreaking on the Farm Power Lynden digester--we'll be having a ceremony on Monday, June 28th at 2pm. The photo above looks from the corner of our site towards the greenhouse we'll be supplying with hot water. You can see what Whatcom Farm Friends wrote about the project in its most recent newsletter here; give us a call at (360) 424-4519 or drop us a note at farmpower (at) for more details--everyone's invited to the event.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

CHP Update

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

Clean Heat and Power

I recently heard Stan Gent of Seattle Steam speak about the importance of centralizing heat production, as his company does for buildings in downtown Seattle. One comment stuck with me: if we electrify transportation, we are doing something more important than just shifting emissions from millions of small exhaust pipes to a few bigger power plants--we are actually radically shifting waste heat from our highway to central locations where it can be put to use.

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

Tulip Time Again

The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is in full swing, complete with clogged roads extending back onto Interstate 5. That makes it a little tougher for us to get out to check on our digester, but on the other hand we get to see fields of color every time we do go--a great combination that also attracted PSE's Andy Wappler last week. Maybe next year we'll do some sort of tulip-themed tour, showing off Skagit Valley to best effect.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stimulus and Infrastructure Impact

Anaerobic digesters are remarkably flexible machines. They can process most types of manure, a wide variety of food wastes, almost any green vegetation--in short, anything that will rot. In the process, digesters make energy and fiber while reducing emissions. Since a digester provides several different tools for several different issues, an installation is very likely to be running many years in the future--even a future very different from today.

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


I read The Oil Drum blog somewhat regularly; as one might expect, the site focuses on energy in general and petroleum in particular, but I checked out a posting about soil the other day. One of the comments struck a chord:

"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"

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.

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

A trillion dollar energy overhaul

During the past few months, the federal government has given about two billion dollars to completed renewable energy projects and provided construction grants (through the Department of Energy or state energy programs) for several billion dollars more. These are impressive totals, and there is more to come. Unfortunately, the stimulus package is only making a tiny down payment on the enormous cost of overhauling our energy system.

Americans use energy in two primary forms: liquid fuels and electricity. Expensive conversion equipment allows raw energy sources such as petroleum and coal to be refined into these two forms of energy. For a variety of reasons, some of the conversion equipment we have installed over the past half-century is becoming obsolete and will have to be replaced soon--but at a staggering cost. I estimate the energy overhaul during the next two decades will cost about a trillion dollars.

Let's look at electricity first. The United States uses about 4,000,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually (while we're talking about trillions, when converted into electric-bill kilowatt-hours that number becomes four trillion kWh); coal-fired power plants have typically produced about half of that amount. The good news is that electricity usage dropped slightly each of the past two years, and the portion generated by coal dropped as well. The bad news is that we're going to have to start cutting back on coal-fired generation for three main reasons:
  1. older plants not only waste about 70% of the energy in the coal but they also lack pollution control and are simply wearing out
  2. 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)
  3. burning coal does more to drive climate change than any other human activity
I expect that half our coal plants will still be running twenty years from now, but we still have to replace a huge amount of equipment. Let's assume that electricity demand remains stable (not at all assured, with recession pulling one direction and electrification--primarily of transportation and heating--pulling the other); we still have to build enough power plants to supply a trillion kWh a year. Since a year consists of 8760 hours, it would take new power plants rated at more than 120 million kW to produce this much electricity. Natural gas plants are the cheapest capacity currently on the market, but building plants capable of running most of the year on renewable fuel (like wood biomass or wind) costs around $5,000 per average kilowatt. Altogether, this partial overhaul of our electricity generation system will cost over $600 billion.

Now let's look at liquid fuels. The United States uses about 200 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel each year. All of this is refined from petroleum, and we import the majority of the petroleum. As with electricity, consumption of liquid fuels has dropped slightly during the past two years, but the bad news is similar: we are going to have to cut back on petroleum refining for three reasons:
  1. 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
  2. the United States imports over half its oil, sometimes from places we'd rather not see benefit from our dollars
  3. transportation emissions are the second largest source of greenhouse gases (after generation of electricity).
Industry measures its production in forty-two gallon barrels per day; again, this production currently takes place at 150 refineries, billion-dollar installations with an average capacity of over 100,000 barrels per day. Liquid fuels can be produced from other carbon/hydrogen sources, ranging from natural gas to wood waste, using processes that can differ substantially from oil refining and require very specialized equipment.

Let's assume that fuel demand drops, but we still have replace almost half of the lower demand--six million barrels per day of transportation fuels and other petroleum-replacement products. The EIA graph above shows that equipment for refining crude oil is the cheaper than any alternatives--just one of the reasons why there is twenty times more oil refinery capacity than corn ethanol capacity, the next largest liquid fuel source.

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?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rural green power--a conference worth attending

We at Farm Power don't attend many conferences; we don't even consider the substantial number of gatherings that charge four-digit fees to attend, and we steer clear of conferences that are thinly-disguised attempts to capitalize on green/clean as the hot topic of the moment. Fortunately, a few still pass our muster and allow for some great networking. The EPA's AgSTAR program puts on great manure-digester-focused events around the country; I attended their 2007 conference. Closer to home, Climate Solutions--an advocacy group fighting global warming--sponsors a regional convention on rural green power: Harvesting Clean Energy 2010 starts next weekend in Kennewick and looks to be worth the drive. The smaller-scale renewable-energy industry in Washington state is pretty small, so it will be good to see what's happening in more-active Oregon while catching up with friends from our corner of the green power business. I'm even contributing to two panel discussions, one on digesters and another entitled "Politics and Your Project". Registration remains open, so if you can spare a couple days to see what's happening at the intersection of agriculture and energy, I recommend Harvesting Clean Energy.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Render Unto Caesar

I send a check to the Washington State Department of Revenue yesterday; it covered the Business and Occupation (B&O) Tax we've been incurring since starting to produce electricity in August. Unlike the income tax charged by the federal government and many other states, the B&O tax is based on revenue rather than profit. The rate varies depending on the type of revenue (the chart above shows the rate for manufacturing; the rate for service businesses is much higher at 1.5%, while some types of food processors pay a rate as low as 0.138%). However, many in the business community hate this tax because it keeps on accruing right through a recession, even when losses are piling up.

A great history of Washington State taxes found here shows that we never intended to have this needs-blind tax--it was an emergency measure to raise money during the Great Depression after the state supreme court struck down a voter-approved income tax. Three-quarters of a century later, Washington remains one of a half-dozen states without an income tax (four more votes failed, most recently in 1975). The resulting reliance on property and especially sales taxes earns our state a special distinction: the most unequal tax structure in the nation.

Voters in Oregon just approved a hike in their income tax rates, but preemptive opposition immediately appeared against taking such measures here to fill the $2.6 billion state budget shortfall. So the Legislature will spend the next month struggling through more cuts, and I'll get ready to send another small check in three months--if nothing else, we at Farm Power are doing our part.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Rexville Pictures Online

Our builder recently updated their webpage. The first part of the digester section features several photos from our project, but the Farm Power Rexville page has two dozen shots from various stages of construction and completion. One of my favorite shots is the delivery of our genset--it came halfway across the country on a truck and then moved the final one hundred feet to its resting place by crane (this was back in May 2009). Check out the rest of the Andgar website too--we hope to have another project listed there soon!