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A stink in Central California over converting cow manure to electricity

March 2, 2010

[Source: P.J. Huffstutter for the Los Angeles Times]

Central California is home to nearly 1.6 million dairy cows and their manure — up to 192 million pounds per day. It’s a mountain of waste and a potential environmental hazard.

But for dairyman John Fiscalini, the dung on his farm is renewable gold: He’s converting it into electricity.

At his farm outside Modesto, a torrent of water washes across the barn’s concrete floor several times a day, flushing tons of manure away from his herd of fuzzy-faced Holsteins and into nearby tanks. There, bacteria consume the waste and release methane, which is then burned in a generator capable of producing enough power to run Fiscalini’s 530-acre farm, his cheese factory and 200 additional homes.

Fiscalini’s resourcefulness should be drawing accolades, considering that state mandates are requiring California industries to boost renewable energy use and slash greenhouse gas emissions sharply over the next 10 years.

But efforts to convert cow pies into power have sparked controversy. State air quality control regulators say these “dairy digester” systems can generate pollution themselves and, unless the devices are overhauled, are refusing to issue permits for them.

The standoff underscores how conflicting regulatory mandates are making it hard for California to meet its green-energy goals.

“We didn’t expect this,” said Michael Gallo, chief executive of Joseph Gallo Farms in Atwater, Calif., whose family has spent “a lot of money” to get its dairy digester system compliant.

The idea of turning biological waste — whether manure, trash or grass clippings — into fuel has been around for centuries. Technologies vary, but the idea is to extract methane from decomposing organic material, remove impurities and burn it for heat, light or transport. Interest boomed after the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on climate change. Methane, considered by many scientists and environmentalists to be as damaging a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, was among the key six pollutants targeted.

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