Farmers are eager and challenged over clean-energy way to process manure
Don Jensen powers his family dairy farm in Ontario County with manure. Millions of gallons of cow pie the farm’s 1,700 herd generates annually goes into producing electricity. Not a new technology but a tried and proven one, anaerobic digesters capture the potent greenhouse gas methane and convert it to power.
So far, Jensen’s Lawnhurst Farms is one of 28 farms statewide using such a system. With the recent announcement of $16 million to promote digesters on dairy farms statewide, it’s expected a number of additional farms will be able to install this clean-energy way of electricity generation.
“It’s positive for the environment and that’s good,” said Jensen from the fourth-generation farm in Stanley. “I like being part of that.”
The $16 million through the state Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) will be split evenly between existing and new digesters to help farmers “safely dispose of waste while generating energy for their operations,” according to state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua. An additional $3 million will be available through the Advance Agriculture Energy Technologies initiative for other on-farm clean energy projects, she said.
One-third of the state’s anaerobic digesters are on farms in the Finger Lakes region. Helming, whose district covers the region, visited Lawnhurst Farms to learn more about the system promoted by groups such as NY Cow Power Coalition, the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and Cornell PRO-Dairy. Lawnhurst Farms is featured in a Cornell University “Climate Smart Farms” video interviewing Jensen and those with Cornell.
At Lawnhurst and other large farms, the digester meets the electricity needs of the farm and also generates enough additional electricity to be sold to the grid. Running at full capacity, the Lawnhurst Farms digester produces electricity at a rate able to power the equivalent of 420 households per year.
While good for the environment — reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient contamination of waterways — many farms using them are struggling to keep up financially.
Revenues from the sale of electricity to the electrical grid and any other financial perks don’t offset the high cost of operating them. Helming said oftentimes farms divert funds from other farm revenue to pay for maintenance costs and needed upgrades. She said the newly announced grant program should fill an immediate financial need for farmers operating digesters.
At the same time, work is underway to find a long-term solution to the costs.
Meetings last summer looked at possible options. Helming said that one idea considered changing the rate of reimbursement calculation, which determines how much farmers get for the electricity their digesters generate that is sold into the grid.
“It is critical that all existing farm-based anaerobic digesters stay on-line so that their environmental benefits are not lost,” she said. “These grants will ease the burden on dairy farmers who need to make a critical decision about whether to continuing investing in their digesters or take them offline.”
Jensen is hopeful Lawnhurst will be able to keep its digester online and other dairy farms will come on board. The greatest return for Lawnhurst is in powering the farm, he said, adding, “for what we put into the grid, the price has continued to drop.”