This dairy farm is making energy with manure
MONROE — They were pioneers when the sky was falling.
Back in 2008, when the housing and stock markets were crashing, the family farmers at Werkhoven Dairy in Monroe took a huge leap of faith—one that carried them to some nearby land and a project/process that would ultimately help the dairy, the state, the Native American Tulalip tribes, and the environment.
At a time when many dairies were struggling to survive, the Werkhoven family, including brothers Andy and Jim, decided to try something relatively new and financially risky: With help, they purchased an anaerobic digester that would turn cow manure and other waste products into electricity— as well as reduce odors and unhealthy run-off.
The digester sits on state land deeded to the Tulalip tribes and used by the dairy in conjunction with Qualco Energy, a non-profit organization formed by the tribes, the Werkhoven dairy and several other farmers who make up the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, and Northwest Chinook Re-covery, a group interested in preserving salmon habitat.
One of Qualco’s goals is “to be a public demonstration center for renewable energy, recycling, state-of-the-art farming and salmon recovery,” according to its website.
The land is the site of the former Washington State Reformatory honor farm, just 1.5 miles from the Werkhoven cows. The honor farm closed in 2002.
“(The state) was excited about using the property,” which had been unused for several years before the dairy and its partners began their energy project, said Jon Van Nieuwenhuyzen, Andy Werkhoven’s son-in-law and a farm spokesman.
A self-described “jack-of-all-trades” who handles everything from maintenance to quality control to human resources, Van Nieuwenhuyzen helps operate both the dairy and the digester.
“Our electricity (from the digester) goes right onto the grid,” through the Snohomish County PUD, Van Nieuwenhuyzen said. Ultimately, the dairy cows and their…contributions…help bring power to about 300 Monroe-area homes. “The electrons don’t go far,” he said, pointing toward the nearby hills on a perfect summer day.
The power company agrees. “Our (five-year) contract for energy from the Monroe bio-digester is consistent with our commitment to meet growth needs through energy conservation and a diverse mix of renewable energy sources,” said Neil Neroutsos, spokesman for the PUD. “The project provides multiple benefits, including keeping rivers clean from manure run-off, creating a market for waste products such as restaurant trap grease and expired soda, producing compost for agriculture, and generating local, renewable energy.”
Turning cow manure and “pre-consumer” food waste, such as the trap grease, into electricity has been a long, arduous process involving grants, a hefty loan, and formation of the symbiotic Qualco partnership.
Grants provided by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the U.S.D.A. funded the initial feasibility study for the project, according to Van Nieuwenhuyzen and Qualco president Daryl Williams. A $2.7 million federal clean renewable energy loan helped buy the digester, Williams said.
Werkhoven Dairy was one of the first dairies in the state to utilize such a digester, Van Nieuwenhuyzen said. He believes there are just eight or nine operating in Washington today.
So, how is cow manure turned into electricity exactly?
Simply put, manure at the dairy is separated from bedding sand in a process that washes the sand and leads to recycling both bedding for the cows and water for cleaning the barns. The manure-waste is then piped the 1.5 miles to a reception pit and mixed with other waste products. Then it’s on to the nearby digester, a 70-foot-by-190-foot insulated tank, 16 feet deep, that resembles a big sport court on top.
There, during a 20-day cycle and 100-degree heat, waste is broken down by anaerobic bacteria to produce methane and other gases called “biogas.” The gas is then piped to a nearby building that houses an engine, which burns the gas and runs a generator.
The net result: Electricity for homes, “Grade A” compost for crops, and cleaner waterways nearby.
Another benefit: Better-smelling air.
“The goal was to get (the manure) off the farm as fast as possible,” Van Nieuwenhuyzen said.
The manure-to-electricity process is very “hot” in Europe now, he said. “There are digesters all over the place.”
A pie chart on the website “Center for Climate and Energy Solutions” shows Germany with the most digesters (6,800), followed by Austria with 551 and France with 468.
The website EPA AgSTAR reported just 196 digesters being used on U.S. dairy farms as of May 2016. Other types of livestock farms using digesters brought the U.S. total to 242.
With farms from Vermont to China now using digesters to produce energy, more partnerships like Qualco’s may form— and its members hope they do.
Their vision is to “help start a national movement to turn animal waste and other pollutants into a fuel source,” their webpage states.
Meanwhile, the local partnership and clean-energy project seems to be a success. Said Neroutsos of the PUD: “It’s a real win-win all the way around.”
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