Rightly so, the United States desires to minimize the need for fossil fuels, especially those imported from other nations. Whether the desire is to minimize our impact on our environment or to lessen the influence our enemies have on our economy, it is clear that reducing our dependence on foreign oil and on fossil fuels as a whole is just plain common sense.
Unfortunately, some of our alternative energy sources we are considering are not much better economically or environmentally than burning fossil fuels. In New York state, battles rage as companies attempt to plant wind towers across the landscape. Wind power can be a good green source of electricity in some circumstances. It has the ability to produce a lot of electricity when the wind is right. However cost, long term pay back and huge public investment are common factors raised for most alternative energy sources as well as by wind opponents. Wind power, unfortunately, has become a howling gale versus a gentle breeze. There are other choices and one in particular that make a lot of sense.
Cow power! There are 66,000 cows in Jefferson County and 196,000 across Northern New York. Those cows already give us the ability to generate electricity, heat, biogas and value added products while improving the environment with little impact to neighbors. Jefferson County already has a little bit of cow power on the grid in the town of Ellisburg and has the ability to produce much more. The 650-cow dairy Sheland Farms has been producing electricity for over a year.
During the summer, when their huge cooling fans are providing air conditioning for the cows, they still purchase some power off the grid, but during the winter, they sell power onto the grid. The 650 cows provide enough electricity to provide for the power needs of the homes in the hamlet of Belleville. The best thing is, you can drive by the farm and never know the cows are their own power plant.
How do they do this? The cows produce a lot of manure. The manure is collected and pumped into the farm's resource recovery building. There, the manure is pumped through a separator where the solids are squeezed out and dropped into a huge rotary drum composter. (I hope you're not eating lunch or dinner while reading this.) The solids are composted, and recycled into bedding for the cows.
The liquid then goes into a large tank called an anaerobic digester. Here naturally occurring bacteria breakdown the manure and methane gas is produced. The gas is collected at the top of the tank and then fed into scrubbers to clean it up and concentrate it for use in the engine that generates electricity. The gas powers the engine that generates electricity. The electricity then either powers the equipment on the farm or is sold onto the grid. Cow power!
In addition to generating electricity, this process allows the farm to better manage the nutrients in the manure. They are able to pump the manure long distances through hoses rather than hauling it in large tankers over the road. This also prevents packing of the soil that reduces the amount of crops produced. Better crop yields due to cow power. Neighbors' noses are much happier because the odor from the manure is reduced.
The composted solids are used for bedding for the cows, which reduces the farm's cost by tens of thousands of dollars per year. In the end, the cow power assists the farm in reducing their impact on the environment, recycling and reusing the farm's organic resources, and generating green (okay, maybe brown) energy for the farm and the community.
So what are the negatives to cow power? Costs prohibit most farms from building digesters. Unlike commercial wind companies, our farms are small businesses and usually lack investors to help with the costs. These systems can cost between $1 million and $2 million dollars. Most farms are not willing to take the risk of building these facilities even with grant assistance. The technology to build these is still being refined. Sheland Farms received significant funding along with a lot of their own money to build their system. A lot is being learned from the project, and the data from the system is collected over the Internet by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It may not be feasible for smaller farms to produce electricity, but biogas could be produced and sent to our schools and other facilities.
But other than cost and refining the technology, there are no other negatives. One dairy farm won't produce the same amount of electricity that the big wind power projects do, but the farms across our countryside have the ability to produce a reliable 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week source of electricity that isn't intrusive on the community and continues our farms efforts to be good environmental stewards. It doesn't matter whether the wind is blowing, the cows will still be doing their thing.
How do we make this happen? Invest in the farms. Give farms as much assistance as possible to help them afford the technology, instead of companies outside our community. That way the money stays local, recycles through the community and ends up back in our wallets through the taxes the farms pay, the jobs they create, and the revenue they bring into our community.
If the New York Power Authority wants to invest in wind power, have them invest in cow power instead. The New York Power Authority could assist individual farms with implementing cow power systems instead of ruining Lake Ontario with wind towers. We don't need hundreds of wind towers dotting the shore of Lake Ontario. We benefit from our dairy farms already. Let's invest in them and let them make "green/brown energy" and improve their businesses so we all benefit.
New York, if we look at our dairy farms and other livestock operations as investment opportunities, we all win in the end. Cow power is a great choice. Help our farms make it happen.
Jay M. Matteson is Jefferson County agricultural coordinator and chief executive officer of the Jefferson County Agricultural Development Corporation.