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0309 ANM: How to get from methane to energy

Published on 24 April 2009

Making electricity is more than flipping a switch or trapping gas. Indeed, the process takes much longer than many hope for, and with all the responsibilities on the farm to take care of, it’s a process that demands more time than a producer has. What are the steps to getting your digester hooked up to the grid? And who should you work with to get your methane making money?


OPE (other people’s experience)
When choosing a digester, don’t rush into any deals. Shopping around is good, but more importantly call other producers that are using digesters and ask them how they like the system they have. They will be able to steer you away from pitfalls they have already experienced, and encourage you toward something they personally know is useful and important to consider.

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Jason Kollwelter with We Energies, a utility company out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has seen many digesters go up and a lot of faulty designs and headaches. He cautions producers to take time to get it right the first time.

“There was a farm that I worked with closely and they had so many people trying to push a digester on them,” said Kollwelter, We Energies’ agriculture program manager. “I said to just take your time and go around and talk with the other farmers that have done it, because there are guys out there that are not happy. Make sure you get one of the dealers that you’re going to be happy with.”

Kollwelter says that over the years the designs have improved but design and end product can be different if the dealer isn’t going to help you get it up and running.

“That’s one of the big things – if you put it all in as a farm, you have to pretty much have someone staffed full- time just in maintaining it,” Kollwelter says. “And most of the farms don’t have someone staffed that understands a digester that well. There’s a lot of upkeep with digesters and it’s a full- time job to keep them running.”

Talk to the utility company early
Another task that should take place before signing on the dotted line is calling the utility company you want to sell electricity or gas to. They will be able to give you some perspective on what it will cost just to get the electricity to the grid or gas to the pipeline.

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“Contact the utility company’s ag staff and work with them,” said Michael Kawleski, agriculture market leader for the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation. “They will be able to give you an idea as to basic costs you might be looking at. And they will be able to get the process started. There are papers to fill out and fees to pay to get the project rolling. Keep your utility company, the folks that own the lines you will be putting electricity on and who will be purchasing the electricity from you, in the loop right away.”

Not all the electricity lines are the same size and many lines don’t have capacity to start sending kilowatts of electricity back the other direction, so the dairy producer or energy producer has to pay for any upgrades to the system. Knowing these costs up front will make a difference when deciding how feasible a digester will be for your operation.

One point of contact
Once you have decided on a digester system and are ready to begin working, one consideration that may improve the success you find will be having someone – and probably just one – that will work with the dealer and utility company. Kollwelter explains that smooth transitions came when the farmer used someone that “spoke their language.”

“They had one contact person to work with the utility and they didn’t come from a farm but had a genuine interest in what’s best for the farmer. The majority of farmers don’t understand when we start talking ‘electric’, or when the installer does. Having one point of contact made it easier on the farmer.”

State requirements
Each state has a department that controls the rates and procedures the utility company must adhere to. So being familiar with those requirements will make you more educated going into the process. Wisconsin has a document called PSC 119 that establishes the prices and how long utility companies have to get back with you, as well as many other guidelines. New York has a website, www.dps.state.ny.us/distgen.htm, that contains helps and guidelines for their state. On that site they also offer information about market conditions. Some websites have case studies. California’s website is www.energy.ca.gov/biomass/anaerobic.html. Each state should have information accessible to the public either on their website or by mail.

Realistic expectations
Knowing the rules is part of having realistic expectations. Kollwelter cautions dairy producers not to think of digesters as a cash cow.

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“You’re not going to sell enough electricity to pay for your digester,” says Kollwelter. “You have to look at other ways, whether by selling potting soil or using it for bedding, to use the byproducts to cut costs. I’ve had some guys look into it and they won’t do it, because they can’t use sand anymore. You’ve got to make it cost-effective by selling the byproducts or using the byproducts, or however you’re going to handle that, because electricity- wise you’re not going to sell enough electricity to pay for the investment of the digester.”

State incentives
From the President of the U.S. to mayors of small towns, government bodies are trying to make renewable energy possible. Look into any incentives that might be offered by your state government as well as grant money that is offered through the 2008 Farm Bill. New York’s Governor is pushing to have 30 percent of the state’s energy coming from renewable sources by 2015. The tables to the right came from a survey that was conducted by Summit Blue Consulting for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Participants were from utility companies around New York as well as digester installers and were asked what possible barriers existed for continued expansion of digester use and how difficult those barriers would be to overcome. In an effort to help farmers deal with these barriers, Tom Fiesinger, a project manager at NYSERDA, says there are many incentives to try and make building a digester, or other renewable energy device, more affordable.

“We provide incentives for digesters, whether they are for a farm or cheese plant, or waste water, it doesn’t matter – they can get $500 per kilowatt in terms of capacity,” Fiesinger says. “So if it’s 100 kilowatt [engine] then they get $500 times 100, which is $50,000. And then in addition to that they can get a production incentive of $0.10 a kilowatt hour for three years. That’s for everything they produce, not just what they sell into the grid.” ANM

Ryan Curtis
Assistant Editor

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