There seems to be a lot more media attention covering “cow power,” than actual viable cow power plants out there. But a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin say that biogas made from manure could provide as much as 3 percent of […]

There seems to be a lot more media attention covering “cow power,” than actual viable cow power plants out there. But a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin say that biogas made from manure could provide as much as 3 percent of America’s electricity needs — that’s about the same amount of U.S. electricity that comes from renewables, excluding hydro and nuclear.

The researchers published the data in a paper called “Cow Power: The Energy and Emissions Benefits of Converting Manure to Biogas” in the Institute of Physics’ Environmental Research Letters yesterday (hat tip Biopact).

This isn’t simply done by throwing cow patties in the furnace. The paper suggests that if the billion plus tons of manure produced annually in the U.S. by livestock were anaerobically converted into biogas we could burn it in any standard gas power plant. If that biogas were to supplant coal, it could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by 4 percent.

Some of that savings comes from the fact that much of the manure currently decomposes aerobically, releasing over 50 million metric tons of noxious green house gases like methane and nitrous oxide.

None of these are small numbers and could provide real income and power in rural areas. The U.S. government has started funding such efforts. The EPA has a whole primer on how to access state and federal resources to fund your biogas digester and offers tips on how to run a manure-to-biogas operation cost competitively.

By Craig Rubens

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  1. Sounds good. Now we just need to get moooooooving on it. :)

  2. I think I saw this in the movie Mad Max. Although, I’m pretty sure it was pig power. In any case, it produces methane, and methane can be burned for energy.

    The real problem here would be shipping all the manure to the biogas plants. Cows are spread out all over the place geographically.

    Unless we start breeding cows specifically for their gas and make them graze outside the power plant…. I’m not sure how viable this is.

  3. And if we add human excrement to the mix our power need will be self-sufficient!!

  4. Methane is more valuable as a fuel for heating or for vehicles than to be used in electricity production.

    If you want to displace coal, use nuclear power.

  5. PG&E has some pilot plants in Petaluma, CA that use this method.

    The manure does not need to be shipped, because the methane is extracted locally. They make some sort of tarp structure over the manure pit, to seal it anaerobically, pump out the methane, store it in tanks, meter it, and then probably truck it out.

    Natural gas and propane are delivered the same way.

    And in the Philippines, I witnessed someone doing the same thing in his own back yard with his own and pig manure. The methane went straight into a Coleman camping range in his kitchen and produced an odor-free blue flame.

  6. Seems like I heard segment like this on NPR. They were talking to a guy who actually was powering his farm using cow manure. One person called in and said that what he had wasn’t a farm, but a factory. That you would have to pen up the cows pretty tightly to get all that manure to pay for the electricity.

  7. Oh, and the dairies that produce the methane also get reimbursed for their energy production.

    Basically, a dairy can produce enough power to cover it’s own energy costs and can also provide a small amount of power to the rest of the grid.

    One would imagine that this would greatly help dairy farmers be self-sufficient and continue producing milk for our breakfast tables without going in the poorhouse.

    I’m sure Wai Yip Tung could sneak into one of the dairies at night and contribute to the grand experiment.

  8. Judy, I think dairies are actually more like “concentration camps” than “factories” but as far as the manure goes, it already gets scraped up and gathered into a big “manure lagoon” that leads into some drainage area, or into a big open-air concrete cistern (I saw someone thrown into one once) so all that needs to be done is to close it off to trap the methane.

    The cows poop where they usually poop and everyday someone scrapes it all together and puts it in a holding area– then PG&E steps in, puts a lid on it, installs some valves and machinery, and voila! energy.


    1. Dairies convert waste into biogas for PG&E

    2. Now That’s Natural Gas

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  10. [...] Manure could provide as much energy as renewables – Earth2Tech Converting manure to biogas could provide some 3 percent of the nation’s need for electricity, about the same provided currently by renewables including wind and solar, according to Texas researchers. [...]


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