January 20, 2013

Cow power in full bloom at Maine dairy farm

A farm in Penobscot County harnesses clean-burning gas from manure and food waste.

By BEN McCANNA Morning Sentinel

EXETER - Calling it a "win-win situation" is an understatement.

click image to enlarge

Adam Wintle, left, Travis Fogler and John Wintle walk past the digester buildings where food waste and cow manure are mixed to produce gas that powers a generator for electricity.

Photos by David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

Cows at Stonyvale Farm in Exeter are part of a dairy and energy enterprise.

Every day in rural Penobscot County, a large dairy farm harnesses clean-burning gas from cow manure and food waste, and it generates enough electricity to power 800 homes continuously. The process, commonly known as "cow power," has the potential to earn the facility $800,000 a year. It also creates byproducts -- animal bedding and a less-odorous fertilizer -- that save the farm about $100,000 a year.

Cow power is more consistent than solar and wind energy, and it eliminates greenhouse gases that otherwise would enter the atmosphere.

The $5.5 million project could pay for itself in five years. After that, it's all gravy. So why aren't more farms doing it?

For five generations, the Fogler family has milked cows on a pastoral setting of open fields, mixed hardwoods and red barns. Now the scene includes a distinctly modern facility.

About a mile from the nearest stretch of pavement are two large domes, two towers that occasionally spew flames, a trailer-sized power generator and more. The site's unconventional appearance sometimes causes passing motorists to pause in the middle of the dirt road to ask John Wintle what it is.

Wintle, the plant and engineering manager for Exeter Agri-Energy, said there's no quick answer. "Each question leads to more questions," he said.

For the past 13 months, Exeter Agri-Energy has been combining cow manure and industrial food waste at this location. In its first year, the company generated 5,200 megawatt-hours for the grid, which earned the farm about $520,000 from Bangor Hydro Electric. Now that the kinks have been worked out, the facility is on track to produce about 8,000 megawatt-hours a year. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour, that's $800,000.

The project was installed in four months beginning in August 2011. It cost $5.5 million and received $2.8 million in grants from Efficiency Maine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Treasury Department. The facility is a subsidiary of the Foglers' Stonyvale Farm, which hosts the project on its land.

Stonyvale also supplies the system with 20,000 gallons of raw cow manure every day.

The manure, which is produced by 1,800 cows, is plowed from the barn floors by a skid steer and diverted into a pumphouse. From there, the manure is pumped about 1,000 feet through underground pipes to Exeter Agri-Energy, where it enters the facility's anaerobic digesters -- two silolike containers that each hold about 400,000 gallons of manure and food waste.

The food waste arrives nearly every day in an 8,000-gallon tanker truck. The waste comes from grease traps and food processors throughout New England and is delivered by a subcontractor. From the trucks, the waste is pumped into holding tanks, where it flows into the digesters and mixes with the manure.

The digesters are heated to 104 degrees, which creates optimal conditions for the bacteria that are naturally present in cow manure. As the bacteria feed and multiply, the mixture exudes biogas -- about 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide.

As the gas pressure builds, the containers' rubber tops expand like balloons and give the containers a domelike appearance. When pressure is sufficient, gas travels through pipes to a 1-megawatt generator.

The generator runs almost constantly throughout the year, except during maintenance periods. The exhaust leaves the generator through a short stainless steel stack, about the size of an exhaust pipe on a farm tractor.

GAS BURNS CLEANLY

Travis Fogler, operations manager for Stonyvale Farm, said the gas burns cleanly.

"When you look at the rain cap on the exhaust, it's just clean," he said. "If that was a diesel engine, the cap would be black from all the carbon. It's just not there."

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