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Agriculture US DOE methane biogas roadmap

Published on August 2nd, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Big Livestock Biogas Blowout Blows Up, Up, And Away: 11,000 New Biogas Systems Targeted

August 2nd, 2014 by  

The Energy Department’s methane biogas program has been chugging away in relatively obscurity for several years, and now that’s all about to change.  The agency has just teamed up with EPA and the Department of Agriculture to announce a new initiative for ramping up manure-to-biogas at dairy farms and other farming operations, called the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap.

US DOE methane biogas roadmap

Photo: Ian Sane.

Livestock Biogas Set To Explode

According to DOE, right now there are about 240 anaerobic digesters on farms in the US,  churning out enough livestock biogas to power about 70,000 US homes. That’s a good number but it’s chump change in terms of overall US energy consumption.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the contribution could be much more significant. DOE estimates that with sufficient support in terms of technology and marketing, there could be another 11,000 biogas systems in operation.

All together, these systems could produce enough energy for about 3 million typical homes.

When you take into account the Obama Administration’s focus on breaking down the country’s monolithic fossil energy profile into networks of local and regionally produced renewable energy, you can see how livestock biogas could play an even more significant role in particular communities.

DOE uses the example of in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, which supports about 8,900 households. In that county three wind farms and two anaerobic digesters (both located on dairy farms) already provide enough power for the equivalent of 8,000 households. Add some distributed solar and/or a few more wind turbines along with advanced energy storage and smart grid systems, and you’ve got an entire county that has self-sufficiency in view, at least for renewably sourced electricity.

What Is Livestock Biogas?

If you’ve been following CleanTechnica for a while this is familiar ground, so bear with us for a minute. Methane-rich biogas is produce from manure (and human waste, for that matter), when microorganisms digest organic material. Think farting and you’re on the right track.

In nature, the process works relatively slowly, and methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — is released into the atmosphere. If you enclose your manure in an airless tank called an anaerobic digester, you can optimize the environment to speed up the process, and you can also capture all that methane gas.

Aside from putting the gas to use, you’re also transforming raw manure from a liquidy disposal risk into a solid, inert (non-smelly) organic material that can be safely used as a soil enhancer. In other words, goodbye to those notorious open manure lagoons.

The Biogas Opportunities Roadmap

That all sounds peachy, but the sticky wicket is how to get livestock farmers to invest in anaerobic digesters, given the limited state of the market for methane biogas and manure-derived soil enhancer.

There’s always the big stick, which would be to make the consequences of manure dumping too expensive to continue as a matter of routine practice.

The Biogas Opportunities Roadmap (here’s a handy fact sheet) offers the carrot instead. As the title suggests, the idea is to make it easier for livestock farmers to identify and take advantage of opportunities for maximizing the value of an anaerobic digester.

Aside from being a nicer way to conduct business, you also get bennies in terms of local economic development, including the potential for existing farms to expand without running afoul of environmental regulations for manure disposal.

Here’s the strategy in a nutshell:

The Opportunities Roadmap also lays out a plan for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to use existing programs to enhance the use of biogas systems in the U.S by conducting research to accelerate the development of bio-based products from biomass systems and strengthening programs that support farmers as they install these systems on their operations, among other things.

The steps that the roadmap lays out include ramping up existing USDA, DOE, and EPA programs to improve biogas systems technology.

The three agencies will also coordinate efforts to streamline the integration of livestock biogas into the fossil natural gas market.

On its part, USDA will spearhead improvements in data collection and analysis, to create a stronger platform for federal grants in support of biogas systems.


Working alongside the three federal agencies are stakeholders in the agriculture and biogas industries.

They’re not letting any grass grow under their feet. The plan is to establish a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap Working Group and generate a progress report in August 2015.

Livestock Biogas And Water Resources

Aside from enabling livestock farmers to squeeze extra value out of their operations, the main thrust of the roadmap is to help the livestock industry reduce its energy intensity and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

DOE’s announcement of the roadmap doesn’t mention another important consideration, which is the preservation of local water resources.  As illustrated by New York and Vermont, water resource protection can also play a critical role in supporting local livestock biogas investments.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Jesusjamey Sterritt

    The methane issue is more tactfully considered when applied to the animals we exploit but the real discussion involves the Human Gas can, the sheer bulk of Homo (not so) Sapiens multiplying by the second. A moment looms when the exhaled and farted gaseous volumes eclipse the breathable oxygenated air supply and everyone has a last look into each others’ eyes, and dies.

    Surely that stark a socio-economic model is being studied if not thought of by
    an intelligentsia somewhere, able to project the simplest of chemistry class
    conclusions: burn all air, life expires. Instead we pore over irrelevant
    minutia seeking facts which support further increasing human consumption!

    Each day that the Human mega-culture continues ramping up industrial momentum decreases the available emergent lead time before total social collapse and as a live organism we enter our final death throes and emit the last gasping death rattle of the once-magical Anthroposphere.

    Warnings no longer fit the normal legislative-executive process of democratic States, with lag times in the years, let alone months while the emergent Ecosphere Agenda certainly now calls for a Civil Society Organization, CSO., to assume responsibility for publishing and moving the topic up the ladder of importance to the
    people. Being itself an organism such a new Political Band will appear to be relatively barbaric to denizens of the City-States who crave their subsidized systems of energy.

    Get ready for the final struggle between Spirit and Body.

    • Roger Pham

      Just so you’ll know, I’ve calculated that using solar and wind energy to produce synthetic foods that you can print out via a 3-D printer to any shape and texture that you want, the Earth land mass can support 100 billion people, provided that all the wastes will be recycled and re-used.

      If floating cities and communities are to be built on top of Oceans, similar to “Water World”, the earth can support 400 billion people using renewable energy and synthetic food and synthetic fuels technologies.
      Cheer up, 😀

  • Jan Veselý

    I can give you some experience from a small country with about 1000 biogas plants operational.
    1) 5 years ago was weird anyone with biogas plant, now is weird oneone without one.
    2) The technology is very sensible to proper running. If you sacrifice efficiency to quicker cah flow than you will cause a LOT of bad blood by the hellish smell of not completely used up digestate.
    3) Farmers like them because it is another source of contantly running money stream.
    4) It is really tricky to run the biogas unit in conditions optimal for biogas yield, some kind of expert outsourcing helps a lot.
    5) Owners start quickly to search for another free plant and animal wastes. Food and biofuel production waste are the easy terget.
    6) Owners quickly realize that they have a lot of heat “for free” and start to look for some ways to use/sell it.

    • Jan Veselý

      P.S.: There are about 5 GWe in German biogas plants now running in the baseload mode producing about same amount of electricity as photovoltaics.

      • Bob_Wallace

        We need an article about this.

  • Roger Pham

    This a low-hanging fruit to pick regarding GW and CC. The Gov must set up budget to see that this get done…either that or “eat more chickin'”

  • EnTill

    Where I live the municipality collects compostable materials from households, restaurants and industry and then produce biogas which the city buses run on. It’s also available to people with biogas capable cars at a cost slightly lower than gasoline although these cars aren’t very common.

  • I’m not sure how I feel about this. Yes converting waste to a usable product is a good thing. The problem is that government is funding R&D to promote industrial agriculture. It’s doing big Ag’s marketing and public relations under the guise of environmental R&D. Thanks, Tina. We also would benefit from not eating so much cow and pig as a country. We would also benefit from not selling meat packing to the Chinese, Smithfield for example. Our resources get exploited to feed 1.4 billion people with burgeoning appetites for McDonalds hamburgers and Chili’s babyback ribs. If anyone doesn’t think industrial agriculture is a questionable practice, I recommend taking a drive through corn and soybean fields of northern Illinois and Indiana. Most of that crop, thousands and thousands of acres worth, goes into feeding cows and pigs. Some goes to ethanol to lower the motor octane of gas – to burn more fossil fuel. Some goes into ink to print marketing brochures and legislation drafts for the pending farm bill. So it all doesn’t go into feedstock.

    • UncleB

      Ontario Canada farmers have large diesel /methane generator sets that are turned on during Peak power Demand Times – Yielding small fortunes for their effort, and reducing the need for natural gas make up power stations a win-win for all! And, yes! fertilizer spreading in the spring is a lot more pleasant than before.

  • Matt

    Yes it is the massing together of animals so they live on piles of their own sh*t. From a water quality stand point should pass a EPA rule that any farm factory with more than 200 head of cattle, 250 pigs, or ?? foul must have one of these. Drive out into the country and you don’t have to go far to see large “lakes” of manure. Of drive past the feed years out west. Where the cows stand on 10-15 ft high piles of their own manure. Also with 80-90% of antibiotics given to live stock to prevent sickness, because of living conditions; there are making the next super bug.
    On the flip, it is a bit harder in city sewer system. Because of all the other stuff that gets added. But you can run these there also. The second big plus is after you run the manure through one it is a great compost that does not smell bad.

    • One of Chicago metro’s wastewater treatment plant, the Stickney works, has been digesting biosolids for methane to run its system for decades. You’re right – what remains in the solids after methane and nutrient recovery is a big problem to solve. Spreading residual biosolids on farmland sounds like a solution until someone figures out what remains in the solid phase.

      “Energy down the drain: Making wastewater work”

      And a new solution coming 2015 for nutrient (phosphorous and nitrogen) recovery:

      This effort was pushed by environmental NGOs to do something about nutrient loading, despite farmland runoff being the major contributor to the gulf’s problem. Here’s a press release on Robert Kennedy Jr.’s efforting:


      The same Robert Kennedy Jr. that tried to kneecap Cape Wind.

      Environmentalism, through big green NGOs, has turned into bushwhacking business development for private equity and banks. Stir up a problem, find a solution and raise water/sewer rates of locked in customers, via public/private partnerships contract finagling. It’s funny how some big engineering board members also sit on boards of many of our country’s foremost environmental groups. This is called heads I win, tails you lose – if I’m in private equity and you’re a rate payer.

  • JamesWimberley

    The only reason there’s a problem with manure disposal is the replacement, on “economic” grounds (but not counting the externalities), of diversified family farms with grazed cattle and crops by giant specialized factory farms. This is not just a US problem; France has it with piggeries in Brittany.

    One important cleantech research objective you do not SFIK ever report on is reducing cow flatulence.

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