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From manure to money

June 27, 2011
By El Paso times
 
A small El Paso startup company has a plan that could upend the dairy industry, making it one of the most green businesses on the planet. Thirteen dairies along a 6-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Las Cruces produce about 1.6 billion pounds of cattle manure each year. Commuters roll up their windows to block the stench.
It smells like money to Lorraine Wardy, chief executive officer of R-Qubed Energy. The company is in the first stages of building a biogas plant that will take that manure and covert it into methane to make electricity, high-grade fertilizer, compost and other material, all of which can be used or sold. The company also is exploring the possibility of using human and restaurant waste from El Paso, said Keith Hughes of R-Qubed. Projects are planned in other states and Brazil, Wardy said.
Setting up the New Mexico operation was not a simple matter. In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had ordered 11 of the dairies to line sewage lagoons and undertake comprehensive record-keeping. It also mandated that animal waste "be properly handled and disposed of without causing any environmental harm.” It appeared it would be nearly impossible to purchase the land under those circumstances, Hughes said.
After negotiations, the state of New Mexico agreed to approve the biogas project if R-Qubed would capture contaminated water from the dairies and treat it in an on-site plant, Hughes said. R-Qubed's design calls for a treatment plant that can handle about 1.4 million gallons a day. Much of the treated water will be put into the Rio Grande.
Wells also will pull ground water contaminated with nitrates for treatment, satisfying some EPA-abatement requirements, Hughes said. Because the manure is being collected and processed, the dairy farmers are relieved of much of the documentation, sampling and laboratory testing required when it had to be stored.
A clash between corporate and dairy farming cultures nearly derailed the project.
"To a degree, ag(riculture) is a world of its own and corporate America is a world unto itself. Getting the two to mesh took a little wiggle room." 
With an enthusiasm for maximizing profit, a company representative insisted on scraping manure from the pens twice a day. The dairies, though, only wanted one collection a day, citing their tightly controlled routine that has been fine-tuned over centuries.
The dairy farmers had their own reasons for making the deal work. Rising gas prices always signal an increase in feed costs. China and India are competing for feed, which also drives up the price.
Now that most of the kinks have been ironed out, Hughes said, a partner, Reynolds Inc., is putting up $25 million for construction of the first 65-foot-tall digester and related systems. Entec, based in Austria with offices in the United States, will build the plant. Ultimately, there will be four digesters at a total cost of about $80 million.
Methane produced at the plant will generate 12 megawatts of electricity each year. That is enough to power as many as 10,000 homes. The power company can use the methane to satisfy requirements that a certain percentage of its energy be generated from renewable sources.
Fertilizer may provide the largest payback. High-grade fertilizer produced in the process is better for land than raw manure. All pathogens and weed seeds are killed in the process. Without weeds, farmers use fewer pesticides.
Carbon dioxide, another byproduct, will be bottled and sold to greenhouses, algae farms and other such businesses, Hughes said.
The relatively simple technique used to convert the manure provides no technical challenges, said Shuguang Deng, a professor in New Mexico State University's chemical engineering department. Deng said he had no connection to R-Qubed. "It's a natural process and they just do it in a controlled way," Deng said. "Even if they make a small profit, it is a worthwhile project. It's going to solve a big problem."
Hughes said the company expects to make $25 million in sales annually for each of its four digesters. The company hopes to be profitable within three years, he said.  Dairy farmers get a percentage of the gross sales and a commission to provide the manure, which they now haul to farms at their own expense.  

The advantages of using poop power are threefold: UMC improves its factory efficiency, cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps excess manure out of the waste stream. After UMC’s manure goes through its biogas plant, leftovers can be used as agricultural fertilizer. (John Farrier in Science and Tech)
 
Edit: Catherine Ruscigno

 

 

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