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.

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