Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Abundance and Industrial Solutions

Thanksgiving provides an appropriate occasion for more thoughts on food waste. Of course, it's our everyday patterns--not our feasts--that should determine how we deal with waste, so here is my own food story.

Once or twice each day, I put four teaspoons of ground coffee into an unbleached filter and make a half-pot of coffee. The next time around, I have to dispose of a wet filter full of depleted grounds weighing several ounces. While one day I might toss an apple core and the next some lettuce scraps, the coffee filters are my heaviest and most consistent waste stream, one that for some time was going straight to the landfill.

Why didn't I use a recycling service? Waste Management charges $100 a year to pick up a green waste bin. It's not hard to find ways to dispose of grass clippings and I have no desire to add to the profits of a multi-billion dollar company (new motto: "Think Green") when they already make $200 a year disposing of my garbage; so, for years I tossed my food waste in the trash bin.

A little over a year ago, I shifted my habits--not with any new service or source of information online, but with two simple tools I'd noticed others using. I set up a common back-yard composting bin, and purchased a beautiful vented stainless-steel pail for food scraps. Now I put each day's coffee filters in the pail, along with bits of fruit and vegetable waste. The pail sits on the counter next to the coffee maker, breathing through its filters and avoiding the odor that can result when the process of biological breakdown starts prematurely indoors. Every couple days, I go out to the back yard with a food-scraps pail and my favorite four-tine garden fork. I open the top hatch, through which I've been loading compost bin for the last year. I re-mix partially-decomposed previous layers of organic material, add in fresh food waste, and cover over with wilted grass clippings. The middle of the bin continues to cure, but I'll dig out the compost at the bottom through the side hatch and put it into the garden next spring in lieu of a branded bag of material purchased at a big-box store.

Now I don't need another huge truck getting four miles per gallon roaring up to my curb every week or two. I don't need to pay another utility bill for the privilege of sending away food I already paid for to be turned into compost that someone can try to sell back to me later. Better yet, I'm much more aware of the flows of organic material through the kitchen and the yard.

Our industrial economy expends huge amounts of effort and diesel moving material around. As long as green waste recycling is treated as only marginally different than our current model of paying to make stuff disappear, it lacks long-term sustainability. Our developed-world level of wealth allows us the luxury of not thinking about waste beyond the comforting thought that someone else is recycling a bit of it.

It is ridiculous to package food, distribute it, bring it home, fail to eat it, haul it away from the home, and then finally try to salvage all this wastefulness by recovering a bit of energy or fertilizer. If we really value renewable electricity and soil amendments, we could take a cue from Europe and just skip the whole wasting-food step altogether. The Germans harvest two million acres of food-grade crops every year and feed them straight to anaerobic digesters, producing over a gigawatt of electricity and building up their soils at the same time. Or we could work to make our waste volumes as small as possible and process them with equally small-scale backyard or neighborhood-level systems. The savings, and the sustainability, would slowly but surely grow in abundance.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Farm Power Rexville Open House

Three years ago was a beautiful October day in Northwest Washington, a perfect day to break ground on our first manure-to-energy project. Today the weather is miserable, but at Farm Power Rexville the digester bacteria are happily making biogas in their 100F slurry environment. While after years of operation we often take our manure bacteria for granted, we want to celebrate their hard work with an open house; we know many of you have already seen the digester, but as always--you’re invited!

The facility will be open from 10 AM to noon next Saturday, November 5th, at 18866 Beaver Marsh Road, Mount Vernon—here is Google map of the digester location. Please come, bring shoes that can get dirty, and any more questions you may have.

In other news, the USDA finally announced this year's Renewable Energy for America Program awards, and our two Oregon projects made the cut. The green power industry is looking at a few lean years coming up, but we are thankful for the opportunity to get a couple more digesters in the ground while we can.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Seattle Times on Farm Power

The deputy business editor from the Seattle Times came up to Rexville a few weeks ago, and the resulting story came out today. The video attached to the story (also available here) combines nice views of Skagit Valley's tulip fields while I talk about the value of manure in an agricultural system! The Times also created a great visual representation of the digester, which I've attached at left.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why go electric?

I spent another $50 earlier this week to have the Toyota dealership service my Prius. Normally, this doesn't bother me too much, but the charge came just after finding the "Service" section of the Tesla Roadster entry while browsing Wikipedia:
Electric vehicles require much less service and maintenance than internal combustion engine vehicles. They do not require routine oil changes. They do not have any tailpipe emissions and therefore do not require any muffler or exhaust system work. They do not require replacement spark plugs, pistons, hoses or belts. The conventional parts of the car—including the brakes, body work and any interior and HVAC work—can be performed by any qualified automotive technician.

I already know that I can't fit into a Tesla Roadster, but the Model S could be my option for breaking free of auto maintenance costs forever. That, and instant torque propelling a sedan from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rainier Biogas gets carbon offset support courtesy of NativeEnergy

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt., March 22, 2011 — A project in Washington State will support local dairy farms and reduce approximately 4,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. eBay, Stonyfield Farm, Brita, and Effect Partners are enabling this project through the purchase of NativeEnergy’s "Help Build" carbon offsets.

Conventionally, manure storage on dairy farms results in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere. The Rainier Farm Biogas Project in Enumclaw, WA, will avoid this pollution through the construction of a manure digester.

Three family-owned farms will feed their manure to the sealed, heated system. None of the farms is large enough to support a digester by itself, but through collaboration, they can jointly support it. The digester will capture and burn the methane to produce electricity in a 1-megawatt electric generator, which will deliver renewable energy to the region’s electrical grid.

The developer, Rainier Biogas LLC, turned to NativeEnergy to help provide financing for the project. By selling the carbon reductions that will result from the digester, NativeEnergy was able to provide critical upfront funding for construction. Through NativeEnergy’s innovative "Help Build" carbon offsets, eBay, Stonyfield Farm, Brita, and Effect Partners were able to purchase a share of the verified emissions reductions that the project will produce over a 10-year period.

Jeff Bernicke, President of NativeEnergy, said: “This project shows that, through a cooperative effort, our "Help Build" carbon offsets bring new carbon reduction projects on line.

Kevin Maas of Rainier Biogas, the project developer, noted: “Everyone in the community will benefit from this project. It will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect the area’s sensitive rivers and streams, and provide low-cost bedding for local farmers.”

To learn more, view the Rainier project page.

About Native Energy

NativeEnergy is a leading provider of verified carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. NativeEnergy’s "Help Build" carbon offsets help finance the construction of Native American, family farm, and community-based carbon reduction projects. For more information, visit:

About Rainier Biogas

Plugging into the century-old dairy community nestled at the foot of Mount Rainier, Rainier Biogas is the third anaerobic manure digester developed in Western Washington by Farm Power Northwest. The two previous projects improve manure handling on partner farms while each producing up to 750kW of electricity. Rainier Biogas is proud to commit to more long-term investment and cooperation with the family-run dairy farms in the Pacific Northwest. For more information, visit

CONTACT:  NativeEnergy Contact:
Thomas H. Rawls
VP, Sales & Marketing
802-861-7707 x215

Rainier Biogas Contact:
Kevin Maas

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Continuing Reign of Finance?

I graduated from Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) with an MBA in sustainable business three and a half years ago. Farm Power was only a few months old, and one of our biggest hurdles was raising capital. While I had discussed this extensively with other interested classmates, our education hadn't focused much on finance--with the notable exception of one spectacular Entrepreneurship class, we had spent little time on the mechanics of debt, securities, and such.

Today, Farm Power has perfected its formula for funding capital-intensive projects, borrowing millions of dollars from sustainable banks while raising equally large amounts from investors and grants. I haven't kept up with the curriculum at BGI, but I have noticed that guest speakers these days are definitely trending towards finance. Unfortunately, it appears that most of the topics end up being on the service side of the industry--analysis, wealth management, and such. And all I can think of is: "None of this really matters!"

It probably sounds strange to hear this, so let me explain: what I see is an economy with vast amounts of money sloshing back and forth, try to cheat basic laws of physics and biology. New sources of energy or sustenance can't be conjured out of thin air, so finance turns to speculating in derivatives of the tangible. The simple existence of hedge funds and their manager compensation norms is evidence enough that there is no shortage of capital willing to pay obscene fees for a chance to cut corners on actual wealth creation. Meanwhile, creating sustainable new sources of food, electricity, or transport is hard, risky, and requires a long-term view.

What this world needs is not another level of money managers or more analysis of mutual funds or even another investment bank; what it needs is more people working to create long-term value that is actually worthy of financing. Our system of worshiping at the temple of finance may or may not be beyond help, but there are ways for truly good ideas to access capital and investors who want to provide it.