5:00pm

Fri July 6, 2012
Regional Coverage

Cow manure helps keep the lights on in western New York

New York State is home to more than 600,000 dairy cows, which generate millions of pounds of manure.

Now, a new energy project in rural Wyoming County aims to be a model for using cow waste and by-products from food processing to generate electricity.

“Perfect recycling project”

Earlier this summer, Synergy Dairy Farm in Covington, southwest of Rochester, switched on the largest on-farm biogas generator in New York state. Manure and other leftover farm materials are fed into a 120,000 gallon co-digester and then burned in a biogas engine.

The $7.5 million system is capable of feeding 1.4 megwatts (MW) into the electrical grid – enough to power about 1,000 homes.

“Gas, which would have normally been [sent] in the air, 'cause it would have been dumped on the ground - [we're] capturing that methane and CO2, [then] burning it in an engine," says Paul Toretta, CEO of Florida-based CH4 Biogas, which built and owns the project.

“It’s kind of the perfect recycling project," he adds. "You end up taking the waste and returning CO2 to the atmosphere. Then it’s used by plants, which are eaten by the animals.”

Dollars and scents

Synergy credits the project with reducing odors by creating an efficient system for handling manure. After the co-digestion mixture is burned, the farm also uses the remaining materials for bedding for livestock. 

Agricultural by-products, like manure and food processing waste, are not always used for constructive purposes, Toretta says. The project demonstrates how even large dairy and livestock operations can become more efficient while diversifying their business, he says. 

“By burning that natural gas, we don’t have to burn fossil fuels that come from the ground, so we limit the amount of oil or other fuels that have to be put into the air," Toretta says.

The project has created five jobs and qualified for a 30 percent investment tax credit, totaling more than $2.5 million, stemming from the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

More than $1 million in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) also helped offset costs. While not technically taxpayer-supported, NYSERDA is funded by small charges on each electrical bill in New York.

To connect the Synergy biogas generator to the electrical grid, energy supplier National Grid kicked in $750,000.  

Still, substantial startup costs dissuade most farms from building biogas facilities. Traditional waste disposal habits are cheaper and less risky, Toretta says. 

“This casts a long shadow. So you put your money in, you have to be ready that it’s going to take 15 years,” Toretta says, which is how long the project is financed for.

More than a dozen similar, yet smaller, biogas projects in New York combine to generate to double Synergy’s capacity, about 3 MWs. And about 17 new digesters are in various stages of planning, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

For more from the Innovation Trail and Daniel Robison, visit their website. You can also follow Robison on Twitter @robisonrobison.

The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate New York public media outlets. The initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), helps the public gain a better understanding of the connection between technological breakthroughs and the revitalization of the upstate New York economy.

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