Bullshit: Fuel for the Future?
Livestock farmers are harnessing methane — a natural byproduct of livestock waste — to fuel their operations.

By Casey Morgan
Lillington, North Carolina is a unique, little town. It’s partially powered by livestock manure from local farmstead, Butler Farms. Harnessing methane produced by livestock waste is a dirty job, but owner Tom Butler doesn’t mind. He uses anaerobic digesters — essentially, covered lagoons full of pig shit — to capture methane to be converted into biogas. It’s then used to create enough electricity to power 100 percent of his entire operation and then some.

“When we make electricity it goes through our farm first, and then when the farm gets all the electricity it needs, the rest goes back into the neighborhood power grid,” Butler said. Methane derived from livestock manure is a potent greenhouse gas. Collected and converted properly, the gas can create renewable energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. It’s such a viable alternative, in fact, that the White House recently created an initiative to move the industry forward.

“A lot of places don’t know what to do with the manure, but you can actually put it to work for you,” said Andre-Denis Wright, animal science professor at the University of Vermont.

According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the production of meat results in more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. The meat industry makes up about 18 percent of the 36 billion tons of “CO2-equivalent” greenhouse gases — like methane — the world produces every year.

In fact, the making of one cheeseburger produces more than six pounds of CO2, according to author Jamais Cascio, who manages a blog called Open the Future. This production includes growing the feed for the cattle to produce beef and cheese, growing the produce, storing and transporting all the components and then cooking them.

Manure from livestock accounts for 37 percent of all human-produced methane, a greenhouse gas that has 23-times the global warming potential as CO2.

It’s for this reason people like Butler have looked into methane power: It prevents harmful emissions and provides a renewable energy source.

“We actually furnish all of the electricity for our farm,” Butler said of his 130-acre farm of 8,000-head commercial pork.

Methane is more similar to natural gas than fossil fuels — you can use it to create steam, power engines or generate electricity.

“It’s something that the Chinese have been doing for centuries,” Butler said. “But we haven’t been doing it here in the United States to the point they have in Europe or even in third-world countries.”

Butler discovered the benefits of methane production by accident, really. He’d covered the lagoons to trap carbon, which he traded for credit on the Chicago Carbon Exchange. But when the CCE failed and went out of business, Butler realized he could utilize leftover methane instead.

“And that’s how we got into turning our swine waste into electricity,” he said.

Two years into his self-sustaining operation, Butler has fine-tuned his process. The manure is stored from ten days to over a month in a sealed vessel at roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, where microorganisms break down the material and naturally produce methane — and lots of it. The methane is then converted into biogas that fuels the generator, creating electricity for the farm and the town. Butler noted the benefits of using biogas from methane:

“We’re taking waste, a commodity that’s already on the farm, and turning it into an asset,” Butler said.

Dana Kirk, assistant professor at the Center for Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education at Michigan State University, said although these systems are expensive and complicated (Butler has some $800,000 in his renewable energy operation), there are many positive factors.

“The environmental attributes are highly positive,” Kirk said. “We’re generating organic fertilizers; we’re reusing emissions; we’re generating renewable energy and we’re diverting material from landfills. So the upside of biogas projects is huge.”

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there were 180 operational biogas recovery systems on American commercial livestock farms in 2011, which produced enough electricity to power the equivalent of 47,000 homes. Eighty-four of those recovery systems are in the Midwest alone.

The EPA’s AgStar program reported in 2010 that about 8,000 U.S. farms could support biogas recovery systems and reduce emissions of global warming pollution by about 1.8 million metric tons of methane — the equivalent of taking 6.5 million cars off the road.

The White House plans to release a ‘Biogas Roadmap’ outlining ways to get more methane digesters on U.S. farms to reduce emissions from farms by 25 percent by 2020. But Kirk feels the biogas still has a long way to go. The industry hasn’t garnered as much support as the wind energy and ethanol movements.

“The industry is really struggling,” Kirk said. “But the overall environmental benefits are much greater than the others.”

Wright said biogas completes a system of energy use without generating waste. “There’s a huge amount of benefits. I also think the cost of the technology will come down considerably, and I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for solving a problem.”

For more information about Butler Farms’ biogas operation, click here.

Photo courtesy of Butler Farms



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Along the forest floor runs a thick tube of black piping, weaving its way through the trees and bushes and rocks to a small stream. The stream carries gallons and gallons of water back through the woods to a mini-farm of sorts. There may be a small greenhouse, perhaps a truck and a giant propane tank. Surrounding the clearing are hundreds of pellets of rat poison and empty bottles of rodenticides.



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