We give a good deal of attention here to how individuals and communities can improve their energy efficiency and adopt a better environmental profile. Perhaps we don't give enough attention to how businesses can do so, too. Case in point: a dairy cattle ranch in Marin county has just added electricity to its line of products.
The Straus Farms' covered-lagoon methane generator, powered by methane billowing off a covered pool of decomposing bovine waste, is expected to save the operation between $5,000 and $6,000 per month in energy costs. With those savings, Straus estimates he will pay back his capital investment in two to three years.
In addition to the energy savings, Straus' new methane digester will eliminate tons of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and strip 80 to 99 percent of organic pollutants from the wastewater generated from his family's 63-year-old dairy farm. Heat from the generator warms thousands of gallons of water that may be used to clean farm facilities and to heat the manure lagoon. And wastewater left over after the methane is extracted, greatly deodorized, is used for fertilizing the farm's fields.
"These projects produce a relatively small amount of energy, maybe only 100 megawatts or so if all the dairies in the state were hooked into the grid"
The California dairy power program -- 14 so-called "methane digesters" coming online state-wide, and more planned -- has startling potential, both for reducing the demand on the state's still-shaky electricity supply, and for reducing the amount of atmospheric methane (a greenhouse gas with greater effects than CO2). As a method of shifting power production away from greenhouse gas generation, biofuel plants are nearly ideal. They make good economic sense, too; the $280,000 cost of each digester is partially borne by the state, and the remainder is quickly covered by the power savings for the farms.
The Straus farm is certainly trend-setting and a model farm in its attempt to adopt many progressive techniques, including being organic. However, Straus makes an ethical no-no by selling his cows to auction for slaughter after they have gotten ill and homeopathic remedies do not cure them and after they have gotten too old to continue feasible dairy production. It's a nice way to repay one's animals after a life spent keeping one in business. As he says on his website (paraphrase), "It would be nice to not have to do this, but the expense of rearing a cow is prohibitive to keeping non-producers." This still doesn't make the practice of selling them for slaughter ethical I'm afraid, just practical. Further, the money taken from their auction could and should be utilized towards funding farm animal sanctuaries, which I'm sure it is not.
On a side note, while the article is hopeful about the prospects of energy production from California's dairy industry and while if this process became an industry standard it would appear to provide numerous ecological benefits, it unfortunately would also underwrite the horde of factory farms that make CA the #1 dairy producer. Getting energy from subjecting cows to monstrous conditions is no more acceptable than getting milk from them I'm afraid...