Green Mountain Power's Cow Power Program creates cost incentives for farmers to turn livestock waste into renewable energy through anaerobic digestion. A new ruling by the Vermont Public Service Board will expand this program from a limited territory to Green Mountain's entire service territory.
Green Mountain Power customers across Vermont can now support a pure Vermont form of renewable energy produced by over 10,000 Vermont dairy cows, thanks to a new ruling by the Vermont Public Service Board approving the expansion of the GMP Cow Power Program from the limited territory previously served by CVPS to the entire GMP service territory.
Cow Power was first offered to customers in 2004, as a way to offer new, local renewable energy choices. The GMP Cow Power program currently includes 12 farms, and generates 16 million kilowatthours per year -- enough to completely power 2,200 average Vermont homes.
"We are so excited to be able to offer GMP Cow Power to 90,000 additional Green Mountain Power customers," said Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power. "This program has so many benefits for farms, for the environment, and for Vermont as a whole. The expansion of this program is one more way that we can increase renewable power in Vermont."
To produce Cow Power, farmers feed cow manure into an on-site anaerobic digester. Naturally occurring microbes in the digester convert the waste into several useful byproducts, one of which is methane gas. The methane fuels an engine which drives an electric generator. Heat generated from this process is repurposed to keep the digester warm, and can offset fuel purchases on the farm for hot water and space heating. The energy generated is fed into the GMP electrical system for distribution to customers.
The coarse plant fibers left over are processed through a mechanical separator. These odorless solids can be used to replace sawdust or sand as bedding for the animals. Solids not used for bedding may be further processed and sold as a garden soil. The liquid portion is an enhanced fertilizer used to grow crops to feed the cows.
Matt Maxwell is a farmer at Maxwell's Neighborhood Farm in Coventry, VT, which has been producing Cow Power since 2008. "We joined the program because milk prices were so low, and we were looking for a separate, steady income stream," he said. "It's been great for us. There's the income from the sale of electricity. We're using the dry by-product as bedding for our 750 dairy cows, and we have excess to sell to other farmers and landscapers. With excess heat from the engine we've been able to heat a 2,600 square foot greenhouse where we raise broccoli and greens for the wholesale market all winter, and tomatoes and peppers in the summer. We also heat our machine shop with the excess heat, which means we buy way less heating oil. When people pay a little extra to buy GMP Cow Power, they are helping the environment, and they are helping Vermont farmers stay in business."
Green Mountain Power customers can choose to buy 25%, 50%, or 100% of their energy from Cow Power, and pay an extra four cents per kilowatt hour premium. If an average Vermont household using 600 kwh a month decided to get 25% of their energy from GMP Cow Power, they would pay an extra $6 per month.
A similar program has been launched in British Columiba, Canada. The B.C. Agricultural Research and Development Coproration (ADRCorp) has created a program under which B.C.'s electricity consumers have the option to buy thier electricty from on-farm A.D. systems. The program, inspired by the Vermont initaitive, provides local renewable energy to B.C., while lowering carbon footprints.
The programs in Vermont and British Columbia are postive signs for biogas in North America. However, the industry faces signficant challenges. One such challenge is finacial risk. For example, under Cowpower Vermont, after grants, the farm still has to pay for more than half the cost of an average $2 million dollar digester project, which would usually be amortized over a 10-year period. Gross income from biogas energy for a 1000-head farm averages only $300,000 a year, about 7.5 percent of a dairy’s total gross revenue. Given that the life expectancy of a given system runs roughly only 20 years, invesment in Biogas is still a risky proposition.
While current North American industry is largely dependant on subsidies, innovation aims to change this. New technology including the growth and sale of biogas byproducts, increases profitability by adding additional revenue streams. Also, new and innovative tank building methods help expand the lifecyle of each project, bolsterring profitability. Governemnt and not-for-profit subsidies combined with technological advancements could hold the key to creating a more viable biogas market in North America.
Interested in learning more about Anaerobic Digestion? Download "AD-101":