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Biogas from Cows Could Help Save New York City Water Supply

New York State dairy farmers launch ambitious plan to produce methane from manure.New York City is fighting to save its drinking water supply from potential contamination by new natural gas drilling operations, and some unlikely heroes may be ambling to the rescue.  Dairy cows are being recruited to provide sustainable manure-derived methane biogas to power homes in New York State.  Along with other alternative energies, renewable methane could reduce the demand for natural gas, and forestall the potential danger to water supplies posed by unsafe natural gas drilling operations.

The statewide methane biogas project was kick-started this fall at New York State’s Dairy Power Summit.  The initial goal is somewhat modest: by 2020, the state’s dairy farmers hope to produce enough methane to power about 32,000 homes.  The real punch is in the involvement of future thinking GE Energy with other innovative dairy industry partners in the effort, which promises to transform the humble dairy farm into the central feature of hundreds of bioenergy communities across the state and elsewhere in the U.S.

Cow Power and Renewable Methane Biogas

The New York State program will be modeled on Vermont’s successful Cow Power renewable biogas program, which collects manure in anaerobic digesters (enclosed tanks).  In an anaerobic digester, a natural process breaks down the organic matter in manure, producing usable methane gas.  New York State hopes to have enough digesters up and running by 2020 to process 40% of the manure from the state’s dairy farms.

Cow Power in Overdrive

In a boost for family farms, hobby farmers and other small scale farms, the Dairy Power summit also yielded goals for developing an anaerobic digester system for small scale farms that would be cost-effective to run with as few as two cows on the property.  More than a dozen other projects are included in the summit’s action plan, including the development of a method for producing diesel-grade compressed methane biogas for use in vehicles.

Natural Gas, Biogas, and Safe Drinking Water

Like its twin sister mountaintop coal mining, natural gas drilling has evolved into a new, more destructive form in order to tap supplies that were previously not economical to exploit.  The current method, hydraulic fracturing, involves thrusting millions of gallons of chemically treated water underground, where it can potentially leach into local aquifers and reservoirs.  Though farm operations can also be problematic for nearby water supplies, the methane biogas solution could provide a cost-effective platform for improving the collection and sequestering of manure.  Anaerobic digestion also yields a natural soil booster that could help reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, so the overall biogas production process could very well pay for itself, and even become an important value-added feature of a financially successful dairy farm.

Image: Cows by Marcy Reiford on

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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