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.