Three thousand dairy cows from Green Meadows Farm in central Michigan will do their part to offset greenhouse gas emissions related to Super Bowl XLVII, with the ambitious goal of making this year’s game the “greenest ever.” The offset, which is available for fans to purchase through the Super Bowl host committee’s “Geaux Green” initiative, will be provided by three manure digesters at the farm.
Manure digesters are becoming ubiquitous with a heavy promotional push from the Obama Administration through the AgStar initiative, but the Green Meadows project got its start under the Bush Administration, and it’s one of the larger and more elaborate operations, so it’s worth taking a closer look to see just what it means for the future U.S. energy landscape.
Sustainability-related actions are nothing new for the Super Bowl, which by some measures began incorporating green elements into the event since the 1990’s. The efforts stepped up in the mid-2000’s, when Super Bowl organizers began purchasing carbon offsets.
As with other professional sports, individual NFL team owners have also been taking advantage of the valuable real estate at home venues to undertake additional sustainability-related ventures including major solar power installations and wind turbine projects.
This year’s green Super Bowl festivities, dubbed “Geaux Green” in honor of host city New Orleans, are sponsored by utility giant Entergy. The Green Meadows offset is actually just one of three options offered to fans going to the game, who can choose between the cows, a landfill gas project in Texas, and a redwood forest conservation project in California.
The three projects are certified by the Climate Action Reserve, and the carbon credits will go to offset the fans’ travel-related emissions.
Entergy will match the fans’ carbon credit purchases dollar-for-dollar, and in addition the company is also purchasing credits to offset emissions related to travel for the two teams, including coaches, cheerleaders and supporting staff.
Cows Step Up for Sustainable Energy Production
The Green Meadows methane capture project kicked off in 2008, when the dairy farm teamed up with Michigan State University to install a set of three anaerobic digesters.
Anaerobic digesters use a natural microbial process to break down animal waste, only far more quickly and efficiently than in an open environment (anaerobic refers to microorganisms that thrive without oxygen).
The process enables the capture of copious amounts of methane gas, which would otherwise enter the atmosphere as the waste breaks down.
Nothing Simple About Recovering Gas from Cows
That sounds easy enough, but it’s worth checking out the details of a major methane capture operation like Green Meadows Farm to appreciate the engineering that goes into the operation.
After a number of preliminary steps to separate out the dairy barn bedding, manure mixed with water is piped into a digester. Even this initial part of the system is designed for energy efficiency. The incoming manure has to be heated to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and instead of using an outside energy source it is run through a heat exchanger powered by hot manure coming out of the digester.
The ingoing manure still requires additional heating, but this step also involves reclaimed energy rather than an outside source. The heat for this second step is provided by hot water, and the boilers are run on methane gas from the digesters.
The digesters are large tanks about 85 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall, each capable of holding about 900,000 gallons of manure at a time. Heating tubes in the walls and floor keep the temperature at an optimal warmth for the microorganisms to thrive. As they digest the organic material in the manure, they produce methane gas which is collected at the top of the tank.
As fresh manure is added near the bottom the older, practically spent manure is forced out of the top. After it is used to heat incoming manure, it goes through an additional treatment and dewatering process.
The treated manure is now rendered into a cakelike sludge which unlike raw manure can be safely disposed on land as a soil enhancer or fertilizer. Water from the process is clean enough to use for irrigating crops, or for washing down the dairy barn.
As for that methane gas, whatever doesn’t get used directly by the boilers can go to a generator to produce electricity, which can be used to make more hot water.
In some livestock digester operations, electricity from the generator can also be sold back to the local grid.
Is This the Best We Can Do?
Well, yeah, when you consider all the overlapping layers of sustainable energy production and resource reclamation involved in projects like the Green Meadows Farm digesters, it’s at least a great start.
The significance of the operation also goes far beyond greenhouse gas management, to embrace more universal issues of sustainable economic growth.
Manufacturing manure digester equipment creates jobs, designing, building, operating and maintaining the equipment creates jobs, farmers can gain extra income from selling both electricity and processed fertilizer (and spend that income), and neutralizing the raw manure waste disposal problem can enable livestock operations to expand without running afoul of environmental regulations.
The Super Bowl and New American Traditions
In terms of permanent job creation and sustainable economic growth, fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline run a pretty poor second to advanced energy solutions like the Green Meadows Farm digesters. That’s even without considering environmental stewardship, risk management and farmland preservation, all of which make Keystone a hands-down loser.
Even so, the pipeline is nudging closer to approval, with the latest development being a thumbs-up from Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, who previously opposed it on the basis of a proposed (and now revised) route through environmentally sensitive regions.
With the burden of rendering a decision on the pipeline now falling to the Obama Administration, Entergy’s Geaux Green carbon offset program gives some cause for hope.
After all, if one of America’s most iconic, flamboyant, non-political, money-generating national events can hitch its star to the renewable power produced by thousands of cows, it looks like we really are ready for a new energy paradigm.
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