WASHINGTON, March 2, 2016 - Generating versatile biogas from the largely untapped resource of organic wastes has tremendous potential. But unleashing the full value of biogas and wastes depends on updating federal energy and environmental regulations to put biogas on an equal footing with wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
Mark Stoermann managed the Fair Oaks Dairy Farms biogas system in Indiana and now is chief operating officer for Newtrient LLC, a spinoff created to help other dairy farms reap biogas benefits. (For more about Fair Oaks and the benefits of developing new markets for biogas systems, see Multiple markets help biogas compete in the Feb. 24 Energy Pulse newsletter.)
Stoermann tells Agri-Pulse that operating a biogas system successfully is tough even in states like Vermont “where they provide incentives for distributed electricity generation.” But he’s hopeful that more states and federal agencies will rewrite their rules to support biogas. He’s also optimistic that biogas will thrive as more livestock operations build systems that provide energy, waste management, and multiple environmental benefits. Along with reducing harmful emissions, those extra benefits include recycling nitrogen and phosphorus to crops, keeping the substances out of waterways, and reducing fertilizer imports.
Melissa VanOrnum, vice president of marketing at Wisconsin-based DVO Inc., the U.S. market leader in anaerobic digester systems, says it’s time to stop “wasting our wastes.” She tells Agri-Pulse that for every truckload of organic waste put through digesters, “we’d harness the energy, we’d get the reduced greenhouse gases, and we would do a better job of keeping our waterways clean as well.”
VanOrnum sees biogas growing as more areas ban the wasteful practice of locking organic wastes in landfills. She adds that biogas will grow even faster if USDA, EPA and the Energy Department follow through on their plans to add new biogas-friendly regulations to initiatives like the Renewable Fuel Standard, the Clean Power Plan, and the agencies’ grant and loan programs.
VanOrnum points out that many landfills capture biogas and generate renewable electricity “but you never get the nutrients back. All the NPK stays in the bottom of that big pit,” she says, referring to nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Instead, she says, DVO’s patented digester systems can recapture both nitrogen ammonia and up to 95 percent of the phosphorus so “you can put it in a truck and take it where it’s needed,” keeping it out of the nation’s waterways.
Digesters aren’t cheap, starting at around $1.8 million for an electricity-only system at a typical 1,000-cow dairy farm. Adding more cows or more add-ons to purify the gas to pipeline quality or recover nitrogen and phosphorus drives up costs. Fair Oaks Farms has invested over $19 million in its three-digester biogas system which generates compressed natural gas to fuel the dairy’s milk tanker trucks and separates out nutrients for use as high-value fertilizers.
Strategic Conservation Solutions Principal Bruce Knight, a former USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, tells Agri-Pulse that “One of the ways to create added value with a digester is to take other organic wastes and tip them in with the cow manure.” He says that by adding restaurant and food processing wastes, “your yields go up,” creating multiple benefits from producing more energy, more nitrogen, and more phosphorus while significantly reducing both imports and toxic emissions.
To take advantage of the full range of market opportunities, USDA is working closely with the DOE and EPA to rewrite the agencies’ rules to provide additional support for the biogas industry. One key change was rewriting EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard in 2014 to include biogas.
Knight sees a need for many more regulatory changes. Looking at USDA, Knight says that unfortunately, “biogas doesn’t always fit into the finance structure in the Rural Development programs.” He specifically calls for USDA to add biogas-friendly provisions to the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).
American Biogas Council Executive Director Patrick Serfass agrees on the need for rule changes. He explains that although current tax breaks help biogas electricity generation, similar support is needed “for biogas systems that serve other markets such as nutrient recycling.”
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