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Farmer sees manure as power source

March 22, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. -- There's power in manure.

Chris Brechbill estimates his 600 cows' manure could make more than 100 kilowatts of energy an hour if the methane is harvested from it.

And removing the methane would also remove the odor, something that would be most noticeable when waste is spread on Brechbill's 450 acres of fields.

"It's going to save me, they're projecting, $61,000 a year in energy savings," Brechbill said, noting he'd also have excess energy to sell.

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Yet Brechbill's desire to invest in a so-called methane digester comes at a time when farmers are taking a financial hit. U.S. farmers are producing 3 percent too much milk, which pushes prices down 50 percent to 60 percent.

"If we could just get rid of that 3 percent, our net income would go up," Brechbill said. "There's going to be a lot of farmers going out of business this year."

Brechbill, a sixth-generation dairy farmer, turned to the state and federal government for grants that would help him buy a methane digester. Applications to the Pennsylvania Energy Harvest and USDA programs were denied in 2008, but Brechbill plans to resubmit them and perhaps seek stimulus money, as well.

"We really didn't think we'd get the federal grant," Brechbill said, explaining that the grant would have contributed $350,000, equal to 25 percent of the methane digester's cost.

Considering the state of the dairy industry's economy, Brechbill feels the grants are necessary to purchase a methane digester. The anaerobic system would use organisms to harvest methane from manure.

Methane is the major component of natural gas.

Liquid manure would be added to the system four to six times a day and be stored in a sealed tank capable of holding several hundred thousand gallons. The methane that is produced self-powers an engine that would run water through pipes that heat the manure to 100 to 102 degrees. Heating manure enhances the methane release.

Over the course of two to three weeks, methane, carbon dioxide and a small amount of sulfur are released by the manure. A filter collects the sulfur gas to prevent engine corrosion.

Estimates are that Brechbill, who employs 11 people, could collect 62,000 cubic feet of methane gas each day. The electricity created is enough to power about 110 homes, he said.

A farm in nearby Adams County, Pa., installed a methane digester in the 1970s, Brechbill said.

The cows at Brechland Farms, on Mont Alto Road, eat 60 percent silage like grass and corn. The remainder of their diet comes from proteins and vitamins.

Each Holstein eats 120 pounds of feed a day. Nationally, each cow produces 20,300 pounds of milk a year.

An automated mechanical device removes manure from the alleys 18 times a day.

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