Dairy Summit Convenes Industry Experts to Explore Ideas for Converting Waste to Revenue
For over 10 years, Sustainable Conservation has partnered with dairy farmers to promote financially sustainable technologies and practices that protect water and air quality, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are invested in building an environmentally and economically sound future for the dairy industry, and brought together top minds to work on this issue during a two-day summit we hosted May 9-10 in Modesto.
The event - Waste Not: Maximizing the Economic Potential of By-products in the California Dairy Industry - assembled over 60 representatives from the dairy industry, technology experts, entrepreneurs, scientists, regulators and environmentalists to explore new ideas, technologies, and business models that reduce the environmental impact of California dairies while providing profitable revenue streams and/or reducing costs.
The program featured presentations by experts who are working on new models based on anaerobic digestion of cow manure that enable multiple co-products, and in-depth discussions by conference attendees of four key opportunities: renewable natural gas, composting, methane digesters, and nutrient recovery. Based on the conversations, Sustainable Conservation plans to help move all of these opportunities forward, although some are more promising in the short term than others:
Renewable Natural Gas
Generating renewable natural gas from dairy methane and replacing diesel is one of the more promising opportunities. Because of the decline in natural gas prices, new engine technology and increase in natural gas fueling stations, conversion of diesel fleets to natural gas vehicles is getting more attention. Renewable natural gas from methane can be used alone or blended with natural gas, and the economics for renewable natural gas are quite attractive with federal and California low carbon fuel standard credits available. Sustainable Conservation plans to conduct a feasibility study on converting fleets in the Central Valley to renewable natural gas.
Composting is another potential option for dairies and would be a solution for farms with more manure than they can use as fertilizer on their fields. Because high-quality compost can help build the organic matter in soil, it is in demand in many parts of the Central Valley and could be a source of revenue for dairy producers. Composting can contribute to air pollution so Sustainable Conservation will explore if it can be done on the farm and/or at a regional facility in a way that is protective of air quality but also works financially.
Standard Digester Model
Despite years of work, on-farm methane digesters to generate electricity are not financially viable on a broad scale. Except in certain cases, they cannot compete with solar and wind as renewable energy sources. Having said that and based on Sustainable Conservation's efforts to help promote methane digesters, there is renewed interest in digesters built and run by third party operators (see recent Los Angeles Times article). Sustainable Conservation will continue to advocate for favorable pricing for this emerging renewable electricity source.
Perhaps the most exciting opportunity discussed was extracting the nitrogen from manure and converting it into a commercial fertilizer product which could displace some of the commercial, fossil fuel-based fertilizer used in California. Washington State University has developed a process to do this in the Yakima Valley, which also has a high concentration of dairies and their attendant environmental problems. The technology and system to use it are still early in development but Sustainable Conservation plans to explore the next steps to bringing this exciting development to California dairies.