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3 open minutes with Skip Hardie

PD staff Published on 19 November 2009

Dairyman Skip Hardie from the Finger Lakes region of New York has held an interest in methane digesters for quite sometime. He owns and operates Hardie Farms, along with his two partners, Steve Palladino and John Fleming.

Four years ago Skip penciled out what a digester would mean to their dairy and although he is in favor of the environmental and societal benefits it provides, a digester held only minimal profit potential and would distract from the management of the dairy herd.

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Nevertheless, his interest remained and last month he attended the Dairy Power Summit in Syracuse, New York, to aid in a discussion on widespread adoption of digesters.

Read on to learn about the Summit and Skip’s experience.

Q: Who called the Summit together?
HARDIE: It was at the direction of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) helped to facilitate the meetings.

Q: Could you describe those in attendance?
HARDIE: More than 200 people attended and in my estimation it was a good cross-section of people. There were dairy producers there, mostly from New York, but some from New Mexico, Texas, California and Wisconsin. Utility companies, biogas companies, academia, generator companies, digester companies, and cooperatives were also there. The summit was sponsored by GE (General Electric Company) and they were well represented.

Q: What was the purpose of the Summit?
HARDIE: It was really to figure out why methane digesters haven’t become a routine item on dairies. It was a meeting to bring together all different constituencies to find out what’s holding us back.

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Q: How was the event formatted to stimulate discussion?
HARDIE: It began with a facilitator. The whole practice of methane digestion and the different processes and outcomes were shared to bring everyone up to speed. The conference portion of the event was dismissed and we began “voting with our feet.”

We were asked to go to one of 25 different workstations or create our own workstation if we saw a need that wasn’t met with the others. Right away you could tell what people thought were issues and what they were interested in. Cross-pollination, moving between workstations, was also encouraged.

Q: What workstations did you participate in?
HARDIE: The first discussed the feasibility of installing a common pipeline to collect the gas generated from a series of digesters on dairies in close proximity. The pipeline would transport the biogas to a central processing facility where it would be scrubbed and injected into another pipeline as natural gas.

One of the things we talked about was where something like this might end up. This workstation was led by someone from the National Grid, which works with both electricity and natural gas.

The second workstation focused on big picture vision and goals. Some of the other workstations included methane digesters size-neutral to fit from five cows to 5,000-plus cows; digester substrates, where manure will be just a starting ingredient for digesters; how to make the interconnection between the electric generator and utility company a simpler process; and promoting digesters as a green, renewable energy source that is available 24-7, 365 days a year.

Q: How were dairymen, like yourself, able to aid in the discussions?
HARDIE: There was a lot of digester experience amongst the dairymen present at the meeting. It ranged from extremely interested, like myself, to dairymen that have been operating digesters for decades. Our collective experience kept the discussions grounded and practical.

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Q: What dairy power challenges were cited?
HARDIE: Quite awhile ago, New York did the right thing by passing a net metering law. The law stated that a person generating electricity could pass that electricity back through their own meter.

If they generated more electricity than they could use, they could sell the excess electricity. Although the law itself was written with vision and foresight, parts of it have become outdated and now the law needs to be brought up to speed.

For example, only a certain amount of substrate is allowed to be added to a digester, which limits a dairy’s ability to obtain tipping fees from other waste disposal. The law only allows for a generator less than 500 kW to be used on a farm, otherwise the utility is not required to buy any electricity.

It states that all electricity must be fed back through a single meter. We have seven meters on our farm and I could run all the electricity from a digester through one meter, but would then have to buy electricity for the rest of the meters.

Many farms have more than one location and would like to put a digester at one location and use the electricity to feed the others, but the law prevents it. In New York excess electricity is bought at 3.5 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour.

When I penciled it out four years ago, we would need 7.5 to 8 cents to breakeven. The interconnection cost and paperwork are both expensive and time-consuming.

Another problem is that biogas systems do not qualify for renewable energy credits. The state of Vermont has embraced renewable energy generated by digesters. Electric consumers in Vermont can elect to pay a higher price for renewable energy.

That excess is passed 100 percent to the dairy farmers. Dairymen with digesters are able to sell all of their power to the grid at a premium and then buy their electricity needs back at the going rate.

That’s a large potential source of income and a very beneficial motivator to farmers. The kitty (for renewable energy) is getting bigger rather than smaller with more consumers signing up than ever before.

Q: What solutions were proposed?
HARDIE: If these problems could be solved by a two-day conference, they would have been solved awhile ago. The teams are now tasked to come up with possible scenarios.

On my team considering the biogas pipeline, everyone is working to bring up ideas and use the resources each of us has to create a positive outcome. Some groups will combine and some will fall by the wayside as more knowledge is gained.

The different solutions from each team will be compiled and eventually be available for dairy farmers nationwide. We may not come with a solution to every problem and there won’t be 20 digesters built in New York in the next two months, but the goal is to stimulate the use of methane digesters.

Q: Who is responsible to see they are followed through?
HARDIE: Each group has a team leader. They will report their ideas to a central committee responsible for developing implementation strategies. DMI staff, funded by Innovation Center funds and not checkoff dollars, will also provide assistance.

Q: How will the dairy industry be impacted by this event?
HARDIE: I think one of the very best outcomes has already happened. People who are knowledgeable about digesters, electricity, biogas and the dairy industry have truly identified the problems. They broke those problems down so there is a process for working through them.

It was refreshing to hear a utility company representative say that maybe they could make the interconnect easier. Of course there is no magic bullet but hopefully it has surfaced, at least in New York and the Northeast, that digesters are a large, untapped, reliable source of renewable energy.

If there is a big enough financial incentive, people are going to react positively. Ultimately it’s about sustainability. Digesters are an economic benefit to dairy farmers and an environmental benefit to society.

Q: What will prompt a greater adoption of methane digesters?
HARDIE: Odor control, methane destruction, cost of electricity, and pathogen reduction issues, are some of the reasons a dairyman might install a digester. Ultimately, they will install a digester when the economic, social, and environmental factors combine to make the decision to install and operate a digester worthwhile.

Q: Do you see any other opportunities where a forum like this would be beneficial?
HARDIE: This process can take a very large issue and break it down into pieces people can deal with. It may not solve the problem 100 percent, maybe just 70 percent, but that’s better than zero.

It allows for total audience participation by putting everyone in small groups to work toward solving a problem. How about using this system to look at price volatility in the dairy industry or dairy farm profitability? PD

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