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Collaborating with US farmers to help the environment

Originally published at Bioenergy Insight

Across the US, dairy farmers are working with renewable energy companies to make use of what would otherwise go to waste. Dairy, food, animal and other organic waste is being converted into biogas with the help of companies like Brightmark Energy, to generate heat, electricity and support farming communities. Bioenergy Insight spoke to Brightmark Energy CEO Bob Powell to find out more.

Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your role at Brightmark Energy?

As the CEO of Brightmark Energy, I lead a team of 40 professionals who come to work every day and are passionate about solving some of our most catastrophic waste and energy problems. Before starting Brightmark in 2016, I ran one of the earliest US renewable energy companies and served on the executive team of the largest renewable energy company in the world, a utility company, and was a partner at PwC and Andersen’s global energy practices. All of those prior experiences have shaped my desire to solve big problems in the industry I grew up in.

Brightmark Energy has embarked on several dairy waste-to-biogas projects in 2019, including in Wisconsin, Washington and New York. Why is it important for Brightmark to invest in this type of project?

We have zeroed in developing renewable natural gas (RNG) from dairy and other organic waste. Those projects are very exciting for several reasons. First of all, RNG is a carbon-negative fuel because it actively diverts methane that would escape into the atmosphere and captures it for use. If we are going to reach a carbon neutral goal, we can only achieve that goal by having projects that have a negative carbon impact. Research shows that when all climate benefits are considered together, RNG from dairy manure can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 400% when it is used to replace traditional vehicle fuels. Additionally, these projects also reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment, thus reducing the environmental concerns of those elements leaching into water tables and other waterways. Finally, these types of projects enhance the economic stability of our farming communities.

Could you explain the process of converting dairy waste into biogas?

Dairy, food, animal and other organic waste is collected from the farm, food processors, and waste management companies. These materials are then processed by the digestor, which captures clean, usable RNG. The RNG is then cleaned and processed. The RNG is finally injected into interstate pipelines where it is used as a clean source of cooking and heating for homes and businesses, in addition to being used to generate electricity. The remaining solids from the digestion process are turned into commercial fertiliser or given back to the farm.

What are the environmental benefits of converting dairy waste into biogas?

Throughout its lifecycle, renewable natural gas offers myriad climate benefits when compared to traditionally captured gas and other fuels, drastically reducing the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) associated with agriculture and wastewater treatments. During the anaerobic digestion process, methane is captured as biogas and converted, rather than being released directly into the atmosphere. And when it is used in vehicles, natural gas of GHGs than does gasoline throughout the fuel lifecycle. The process also benefits the local environment by processing and recovering much of the nitrogen and phosphorus in manure as a value-added biofertiliser, which can be efficiently transported to crop fields that need the nitrogen and other nutrients, displacing chemical fertilisers and creating a sustainable cycle of nutrients that prevents water and air pollution. Other advantages include the drastic reduction of pathogens and odour in the process water and products recovered from the system.

How will your dairy waste-to-biogas projects benefit local farmers?

Listen, the US dairy industry is in trouble. Thousands of dairy farms across the US are closing every year due to falling demand for dairy products and increasingly stringent environmental regulations. Our dairy biogas projects create a second revenue stream for these farmers, which is more important to them than ever — while helping these farms to reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen making it into local air and waterways from cow manure. In many instances farmers are actually able to increase the size of their farms resulting from the lowered release of nitrogen and phosphorus into local watersheds. These farmers are good people who want to do right by their communities. They are invested in being good stewards of their local environment, and our projects help them to do just that.

The dairy waste-to-biogas project in upstate New York is Brightmark Energy’s biggest anaerobic digestion (AD) project to date. What can you tell us about your plans?

We’ve partnered with four dairy farms in upstate New York to utilise anaerobic digesters that will convert a total of 225,000 gallons of dairy waste per day from 11,000 cows into biogas and other useful products. After the planned installation of gas upgrade equipment is completed at the Swiss Valley, Zuber, Boxler and Lake Shore farms, as well as a fifth farm that is expected to be finalised next month, the project is anticipated to generate about 260,000 MMBtu of RNG each year. The gas processed at each farm will be transported to the Zuber farm, where it will be injected into the Empire interstate gas pipeline. Previously, the anaerobic digesters on these farms produced electricity that was used both onsite by the farms and transmitted to the local electric grid. However, some of the digesters are more than 10 years old, and they had begun to cost more to maintain and operate than they generated in value. After refurbishment work is completed on the systems, participating farmers expect to see drastically greater returns on their digesters, while further minimising the local environmental impacts of the manure generated by their herds.

How much support does the US Government provide for AD projects and what more needs to be done?

The federal government, through Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administered renewable identification number (RIN) programs, does provide some price support. However, the programmes have not been fully supported in the last couple of years, which makes the vast majority of potential projects not viable. A few states have adopted robust programmes that provide assistance. For us to change these environmental problems and help our farming communities we need to have the federal government fully support the already adopted EPA RIN programmes. Additionally, the adoption of investment tax and production tax credits, which have driven the high adoption of renewables in the US, would be an important step to making these projects more viable.

What’s next for Brightmark Energy?

You will see us continue to support the growth of these environmentally-friendly projects visibly across the US and beyond. Our RNG business, together with our plastics renewal business, will produce significant economic and environmental positive effects — we will be a major player in solving these issues!

Marta Ady's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 19, 2019 5:30 pm GMT

Thanks for the insightful interview, Marta.

I found this part particularly insightful:

Our dairy biogas projects create a second revenue stream for these farmers, which is more important to them than ever — while helping these farms to reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen making it into local air and waterways from cow manure.

These types of projects that are economic boosts to farmers are so important right now and there's really momentum for them to make a difference

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