Converting animal waste to methane to energy doesn’t generally produce a lot of excitement.  Usually, mentioning manure just leads to a ho-hum or even a snicker.  But more people should be more interested in making more energy from manure.  I think this is a technology whose time has finally come.

Does that mean that biogas is likely to generate enough energy to reduce prices at the gas pump or reverse the rising cost of electricity?  No, but producing energy from waste can be a viable alternative to fossil fuel in certain situations.  At the very least, capturing methane from manure deserves a second look from everyone who’s committed to reducing our nation’s carbon footprint and increasing renewable energy—conservationists, environmentalists and farmers and ranchers.

I recently spent three days at the AgSTAR Conference in Syracuse concentrating on turning manure into energy.  What’s not to like about a process that results in multiple environmental payoffs?  Recycling animal waste offers four major benefits:

- It destroys methane gas, reducing greenhouse gases;

- It reduces odor from manure storage;

- It improves water quality; and

- It generates energy.

Anaerobic digesters may produce methane in sufficient quantities to be of interest to some power companies and to help meet the desire for increasing access to renewable electrons while reducing on-farm energy needs.  And community digesters may provide sufficient biogas to power local institutions such as schools or prisons, without the need to worry about feeding into the electrical grid.

I love energy from the sun and wind, but solar power is only available about half the day, and windmills only turn when the wind is blowing.  Manure, on the other hand, provides baseload power—it’s available every day, and methane can burn 24/7. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2011, the 176 anaerobic digesters in the U.S. generated the equivalent of 541 million kilowatt-hours of usable energy—enough to supply more than 36,000 average American homes with power for a year.  At the same time, the digesters destroyed 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases and avoided production of an additional 301,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide by reducing the need for fossil fuels.  That is the same as removing nearly 300,000 passenger cars from the road or reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by almost 170 million gallons.

A handful of states with a favorable regulatory climate and strong environmental commitment are leading the way in encouraging biogas projects that are profitable.  Others should follow suit.

Biogas production offers an excellent opportunity for public investment to help put digesters in place through programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Rural Development.  The U.S. Department of the Treasury also offers a cash grant program for renewable energy projects.

In addition to these agencies, we need greater involvement of the Agricultural Research Service and the Economic Research Service to fund and direct research that can identify cost-effective ways to remove fertilizer—nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium—from effluent.  Advancing the technology will increase profitability and further promote installation of digesters.

When Congress finally sits down and writes the 2012 farm bill they need to create equity for renewable energy sources in the farm bill authorized programs.  Many of USDA’s programs to support renewable energy were crafted with ethanol, wind or solar in mind.   It is time to reform the programs to enable all forms of renewable energy.   It is time to end restrictions in biomass programs that don’t consider manure to be biomass.  It is time to make sure that evaluation of a project’s deliverables consider environmental benefits of water quality and methane destruction.  Most importantly, we should adequately fund these programs.    

We can improve air and water quality, increase fuel conservation and boost renewable energy by making the most of manure.  This is a sensible approach that we need to encourage.

 About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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