Dane County Cow Power is farming for the future

Sunday, April 11, 2010

From a guest column by Scott Schultz, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union:

Manure happens. Farmers know that all too well.

Farmers also know that well-managed manure can be a valuable resource instead of being a waste with the potential of polluting lakes or drinking water.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has recognized manure’s resource capabilities, so has championed a novel manure solution. The Dane County Cow Power project, a community digester in the town of Vienna, will take the manure from 2,500 cows and produce electricity. In the process, manure is broken down by bacteria, releasing gases that can be burned in an electric-producing generator. The project will power more than 2,500 homes, and special technology in the digester will remove much of the phosphorus -- the nutrient that stimulates lake algae.

The idea of turning waste into energy has been around for centuries. But removing phosphorus in the process is new -- and a very big clean-water innovation. Only a handful of digesters are doing it. This project can be a model that can be replicated across the Midwest.

The project has three winners -- dairy farmers who need better solutions to manage their manure, utilities that can buy electricity produced from cows rather than coal, and people who want clean water to drink and clean lakes to swim and fish in.

The United States has 140 biogas digesters while the European Union has nearly 10,000. Wisconsin leads the nation with 32 digesters counting Dane County’s Cow Power project. Germany, about twice the size of Wisconsin, is the world leader in biogas production and has 5,300 digesters, mostly from small farms. They employ more than 10,000 people in the biogas industry.

Moving toward a more renewable energy economy will take big ideas. Making renewable energy from manure is one of them. Dane County’s Community Cow Power project is smart farming for the future.