Cow Power, its awesome! Why isn’t it utilized more?

Cows and other livestock produce more than one billion tons of manure which pollute our air and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere such as methane and nitrous oxide [3]. These feces also require time to decompose on land or need energy to be transported as fertilizer. This is not to mention the enormous amount of discomfort farmers and owners of livestock have to endure when they smell their animal’s feces. The greenhouse gasses that are released are very dangerous to the atmosphere; methane warms the atmosphere 21 times more than carbon dioxide while nitrous oxide produces 310 times heat in the atmosphere [2]. In fact the methane produced from livestock are responsible for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses [4]; this is comparable to the amount of pollution that an automobile produces on average. A large percentage of the methane is released through the belching and flatulence, but manure also contains a sizeable amount of methane. While it would be hard to stop an animal from belching and farting, it is definitely possible to prevent the manure to decompose and release its green house gasses into the atmosphere.

Dr.Webber mentioned in class that this enormous amount of “waste” can actually be used as fuel. How does this work? By putting the waste through anaerobic digestion, the manure is converted into “methane rich biogas and sludge, which is odorless”  and can be used as fuel in transportation or electricity  as biogas and (or) biomethane [3]. There are so many benefits to this process. For starters, the land that is used to store waste is freed up. There is potential to eliminate up to 99 million metric tons of green house gas which would effectively lower the United State emission of green house gasses from electricity production [2]. In fact the burning of this biofuel will have less emission than coal which dominates over 50% of our electricity production’s fuel source. This source of energy has to the potential to add almost 100 billion kilowatt hours of power to our nation’s grid which is roughly 2% of our nation’s electricity consumption [2]. Logically this also makes sense for the farmers themselves; this opens an opportunity for them to add an extra stream of revenue without requiring many existing infrastructures if any at all.    

Image

 Above is a diagram of a methane digester which is currently being used on dairy farms in California that converts the incoming biogas to renewable electricity, biomethane, and natural gas [1].

So if cow power is so eco-friendly and sustainable why isn’t it  more available? This mostly because this idea is a relatively recent idea that hasn’t had a chance to develop within the industrial community and new renewable energy technologies require a large capital investment to go the process going [1]. It will take some time for the idea to also grow friendly with the consumers. Waste bio fuels will also need some time for the initial investment costs to be offset by production and become cost competitive like the wind industry. This is a problem because this idea hasn’t generate enough support to become widespread, in fact the government, while supporting many renewable and sustainable sources of fuel, are more focused on ethanol and biodiesel than biomethane production [1]. The biomethane industry will require government policies such as tax breaks and required consumption like the establishment of the ethanol in our nations fuel stations. While there are some policy that address “biomethane” that show promise like the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002”, there isn’t much power and teeth behind it as well as minimal or no funding.

There also needs to be a establishment of either local or regional distribution centers that can effectively and efficiently distribute the bio methane. This is something that require time and investment. Last and most important is the market for the fuel; the production of bio gas and bio methane depends on the consumers for its continuation. If it fails at many local levels, then this idea and product may never reach the national level where it can fully realize its potential.

So in short, animal manure being converted into a biofuel is a great idea with many potential environmental, financial, and waste reduction solutions. However it must overcome many initial barriers such as lack of government support, large initial capital investment, large infrastructure requirement, and the support of the people and market.

Citations

[1] http://www.suscon.org/cowpower/biomethaneSourcebook/Full_Report.pdf

[2] Institute of Physics (2008, July 25). Cow Power Could Generate Electricity For Millions.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724064840.htm

[3] Dr. Michael E. Webber and Amanda D Cuellar. Cow Power: The Energy and Emissions Benefits of Converting Manure to Biogas. Environmental Research Letters, 3 034002 (8pp), July 24, 2008 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/3/3/034002

http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/3/3/034002/pdf/1748-9326_3_3_034002.pdf

[4] http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/mammals/methane-cow.htm

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