Governor pushes methane gas initiative

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Local dairy farmers support the idea of turning manure into electricity, and now that Gov. Bill Richardson wants state incentives to encourage the idea, they say it’s more feasible than ever.

“Local dairies here have been wanting to do some projects, but we need help,” said Art Schaap, a Curry County dairy farmer who owns three dairies in New Mexico and one in Texas.

Richardson signed an executive order Thursday that outlines emission reduction strategies to address global warming in New Mexico. Among the strategies is a plan to offer dairies incentives to capture methane gas from manure and turn it into electricity.

Environmentally harmful emissions from manure management at New Mexico dairies doubled from 1990 to 2004, according to a New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group report released in December.

“It’s a significant source of emissions. That’s why we want to look at ways to help reduce it,” said Sarah Cottrell, energy and environmental policy advisor to the governor.

Details on the state incentives are misty at this stage, but they are being formulated by the Department of Agriculture, according to Cottrell.

Methane gas is naturally emitted from manure. It can be captured by covering lagoons, or pools of manure, vacuuming up gas emitted and running it through a generator; or by loading liquid manure into an insulated heat tank with a cover, called a digester, according to Schaap.

To make electricity production feasible at dairies, incentives need to entice buyers to purchase electricity from dairies and help offset the cost of equipment required to convert methane gas into electricity, according to many in the dairy industry.

“Both (incentives) are possibilities. We have to look at what would make sense,” Cottrell said.

The technology needed for the conversion of methane gas into electricity has been around for 40 to 50 years, according to Chet Wyant, president of EnviroCompliance Service, a company that helps approximately 50 dairies in eastern New Mexico comply with environmental laws.

But with no economic benefits, farmers have long rejected the prospect.

“I know facilities that have considered this as an option in the past, but have had a hard time making it pencil out economically,” Wyant said.

Electricity yields from the process also fluctuate, Wyant said.

Dairies need “construction and operation incentives in addition to a reasonable buy-back rate,” Wyant said.

“The situation we (the dairy industry) find ourselves in right now is, Who will buy (the electricity)?” Dairy Farmers of America spokesperson Walter Bradley said.

Eastern New Mexico is home to roughly one-third of all dairies in the state, with approximately 120,000 dairy cows housed in Roosevelt and Curry counties, according to a National Agriculture Statistics survey.

“This will be a win-win for the surrounding area because we (dairy farmers) will be able to capture all the gas leaving the dairy, and the environment in the area will benefit,” said Schaap, who is a member of the grassroots trade association, Dairy Producers of New Mexico.

The formation of a cooperative of eastern New Mexico dairies interested in producing electricity is in its beginning stages, according to Schaap.

Dairies could use the electricity they produce to operate their dairies and sell remaining yields to electric and gas companies, he said.

A similar cooperative of Chaves County dairy producers, called the Pecos Valley Biomass Cooperative, has already been formed.

“It’s important to reduce global warming gases in every appropriate way we can identify. Every little bit added up helps a lot,” Wyant said.

“We’re gonna do it bit by bit.”