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Cuomo’s $20 million for anaerobic digesters is boon for NNY dairy farmers

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More dairy farmers in the north country are expected to consider tapping into state funding needed to install anaerobic digesters that convert waste into electricity, thanks to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement this week that $20 million will be available this year for such projects.

The funding, available through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, will enable farms, food processors and wastewater sites to be eligible for up to $2 million per project.

Inspired by Gov. Cuomo’s yogurt summit last year that focused on ways to assist dairy farmers, the funding for anaerobic digesters will make projects more affordable for those seeking to streamline operations, said Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator. Digesters make methane-rich biogas to produce electricity and a nutrient-rich effluent that may be applied to crops as fertilizer and used for cattle bedding.

“We have long thought that if the state wanted to invest in alternative-energy sources, especially biofuels, then anaerobic digesters are a good direction to go in,” Mr. Matteson said. “Farmers win because they can generate their own power, and it’s a win for the community because it helps the farm manage their waste stream even better” to reduce contamination and odor.

To date, only two dairy farms in the region have installed digesters: Douglas W. Shelmidine, owner of a 750-cow farm in Ellisburg, and Jon R. Greenwood, owner of a 1,300-cow farm in Canton.

The investment to purchase a digester usually ranges from $3 million to $5 million, Mr. Matteson said, but they’ve become increasingly affordable for farmers because of better state subsidies.

“You don’t see a lot of these because the expense is very high, and that’s why we encourage the state to invest in them,” he said.

It cost about $1.5 million to build the anaerobic digester, a 33-foot-high tank with a 36-foot diameter, at Sheland Farms in Ellisburg in 2005. The digester produces about 90 kilowatts of electricity — enough to power about 200 homes — and supplies almost all of the electricity used for farm operations, Mr. Shelmidine said.

“We’re generating enough power for about 200 average homes, but we’re utilizing all of that power based on what we produce and are still paying for electricity off the grid,” he said. “It’s used for everything from lighting, ventilation, to cooling milk and powering feeding equipment.”

Mr. Shelmidine originally expected energy savings from using the digester to pay off the cost of the project in about eight years. But that timeline has been delayed by about 25 percent because of unplanned expenses, he said. Machinery needed to power the digester has broken down several times since it was installed, which increased the project cost.

“The benefits we’ve seen here haven’t been cash savings, but odor reduction and the ability to handle our manure in a more responsible and timely manner,” Mr. Shelmidine said. “From an economic standpoint, it’s not a huge win, because of the maintenance cost we’ve had and the amount of time it’s taken to fix problems. The challenge for us is going to be the ongoing maintenance cost, and the (overall) cost is going to be closer to a break-even situation.”

Anaerobic digester projects, nevertheless, have become more affordable since Mr. Shelmidine applied for state funding about a decade ago, according to Mr. Greenwood, who is now installing a digester at his Canton dairy farm. Mr. Greenwood has nearly finished installing the digester for the $3 million project, which will be funded by a total incentive package of $2 million over the next 10 years. That includes the payout of $700,000 that will be spread out over the term, based on the kilowatt-hours of electricity produced.

He expects the payback period for the project to be about five years, based on cost savings realized from the digester.

“We’ll exceed electricity we need for our own use and will be putting it back onto the grid,” Mr. Greenwood said. “And every year, I will receive a check from NYSERDA based on the power I produce.”

The most considerable savings, however, will be generated by using manure solids from the digester for cattle bedding instead of the more expensive sawdust used now.

“Prices for sawdust have gone up, and a tractor-trailer load is over $2,000,” Mr. Greenwood said, adding that he knows several farmers in St. Lawrence County who also have considered buying digesters.

Because of the affordability of projects made possible by state funding, he said, dairy farmers make the effort to find out whether a digester could result in long-term benefits. Farms first need to have three-phase power to operate digesters, he said.

“It’s a significant investment, because farms front the money and you need to be reimbursed,” he said. “So there are risks there, and also management time needed to operate equipment. So if a farm is in growth mode and has other priorities, it might not be a good idea.”

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