By Jesse Cameron
By early 2019, cow manure from several dairy farms in northeastern Wisconsin will be turned into fuel for trucks and buses on the West Coast.
DTE Biomass Energy, based in Detroit, is bringing the effort to life as part of a renewable energy initiative. Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, a Dairy Business Association member, is the first partner. Ground was broken for a processing facility earlier this fall at the farm.
It’s seen as a win-win. The farm will reduce its environmental impact, and DTE will do the same by creating renewable natural gas, which burns more cleanly than gasoline or diesel.
“Our family has always tried to be on the cutting edge of innovation,” J.J. Pagel said.
Pagel credited his father, John, who passed away earlier this year, for having the vision to pursue the idea. J.J. said he is proud to be able to see it through.
“This project was something that dad and a team of people have been working on for more than two years,” he said.
How it works
The system works by collecting the raw biogas from dairy cow manure, which is about 60 percent methane and 40 percent other gases. The biogas is compressed and dried before being put through a series of membranes that strip out the non-methane gases, leaving gas which meets pipeline-quality specifications.
This renewable natural gas is then compressed and loaded into tube trailers, which are trucked to another facility that DTE owns, which is directly located on a natural-gas pipeline. The renewable gas can be extracted from the pipeline at another location and used as vehicle fuel.
The fuel can only be used by vehicles with engines equipped to run on compressed natural gas.
Kevin Dobson, vice president of biomass development at DTE, said the company is also set to build processing facilities at three other dairies, collecting and purifying biogas from five farm digesters. DTE already operates 21 landfill gas projects across the country, including five renewable natural gas facilities.
Two of the additional processing facilities will be at Dairy Dreams in Casco and near Grotegut Dairy Farm in Newton, both DBA members.
“We are really excited for this. This is part of our drive to be good neighbors,” Dairy Dreams co-owner Don Niles said.
Eric Grotegut said that aside from producing some heat, there’s little use for the methane from his farm’s digester. “Now, we burn it off, essentially. It’s almost useless,” he said.
In the past, farms invested in biodigesters to power generators that produce electricity. But these turned out to be a losing financial proposition as the price paid by utilities for the electricity fell, leaving the expensive systems operating at a loss.
In the DTE partnerships, farmers have no upfront expenses. The company will own and operate the processing facilities.
“The RNG facility allows the farm to have an economically viable project that ensures the anaerobic digesters on their farms remain operational,” Dobson said. “It provides farmers with a great way to manage their manure by significantly reducing odors, free bedding for their herd from the fiber and effluent created by using the biodigester as well as a monetary payment from the project for the rights to the biogas.”
Dobson said that in all, the digesters in the DTE projects will generate 450,000 to 500,000 million BTUs of renewable natural gas annually. He noted that natural gas-fueled vehicles continue to gain in popularity, particularly in long-haul trucking fleets and bus fleets.