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From Refuse to Resource:
By this time next year, a DFA-member dairy farm located in west Texas is expected to become a contributing part of the nation’s power grid.
Jim and Frank Cnossen, who presently milk about 6,500 cows at their dairy outside of Hereford, Texas, recently signed a contract with Environmental Power Corporation’s subsidiary, Microgy, Inc., to construct and operate a renewable bioenergy plant at their dairy. The plant will use proven anaerobic digester technology to generate methane-rich biogas from manure. Construction began on the project in August 2008, and the system is projected to go online no later than the second or third quarter of 2009.
“It was primarily a management decision to partner with Microgy on this project,” says Jim Cnossen. “But there are also significant environmental benefits for any large livestock operation that reduces its environmental footprint, and we felt it was important for our dairy to become part of that movement.”
Microgy, which will own and operate the renewable energy production facility, will condition the biogas to natural gas standards and distribute it through a commercial pipeline. The purified biogas, called renewable natural gas (RNG), is Microgy’s branded, renewable, pipeline quality methane product. Microgy reports that at full capacity, the facility is expected to generate 635,000 MMBtu of pipeline grade renewable natural gas per year, which is the energy equivalent of 4.5 million gallons of heating oil and enough to heat about 11,000 homes.
Cnossen says it’s still unknown whether the renewable natural gas will be consumed in west Texas, or will be piped to other parts of the nation. “Microgy is still working with several natural gas companies,” he says, “but it’s possible the gas could tie into a pipeline all the way to Chicago.”
The Cnossen facility will include six large digester tanks and a mechanical gas conditioning system to extract methane-rich biogas from waste. Manure from the corrals will be directed into anaerobic digesters, where bacteria break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Adding substrate, such as animal and vegetable fat, will make the bacteria more active and substantially boost gas production.
Jim and Frank Cnossen are second-generation dairymen who relocated to Texas from southern Idaho. The Cnossen family began their dairy operations in Artesia, California, in 1969. In 1974, they relocated to Idaho with 80 cows. After their father, Frank Cnossen, Sr. passed away in 1993, Jim and Frank expanded the family operation to about 3,700 cows on three Idaho dairies. In 2006, the Cnossen families relocated their operations to one large expanded site in west Texas.
“We started up here two years ago last August with a double-60 parallel milking barn, and a double-15 parallel barn for our fresh and new cows,” says Cnossen. “We’re milking about 6,500 cows now. Including our dry cows, we have about 10,000 head on this place, which is enough for the bioenergy plant to start up at full capacity. Now we’re looking at adding another milk barn and increasing our herd to about 13,000 milking cows.”
Other features at the dairy include automatic take-offs and electronic ID tags to help coordinate breeding programs and cow movement. Once the bioenergy plant is online, Cnossen says they expect to use some of the gas for hot water and heating in their parlors.
Cnossen says he and his brother Frank produce about 60 to 65 percent of the dry matter required to feed their herd. They grow 6,500 to 7,000 acres of irrigated sorghum and 1,500 to 2,000 acres of dryland sorghum, which is used to produce sorghum silage and grain milo.
Byproducts of the methane digestion process will include fertilizer and a material that can be used as animal bedding. “Since we do not have a free-stall operation, we’ll probably put the bedding byproduct back into our fields,” says Cnossen. “But the people at Microgy tell us the fertilizer byproduct will be very stable and consistent, with about
70 to 80 percent weed seed kill. And that we can use.”
The Cnossen bioenergy plant has captured the attention of Texas agriculture officials, including Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who participated in the project groundbreaking. The groundbreaking ceremony, held in August, was attended by federal, state and local authorities, area farmers, DFA representatives and members of the energy industry, as well as area news media.
“Texas is a leader in renewable energy and this new innovative plant plays an important role ensuring the Lone Star State remains in the forefront,” Staples said during a press conference. “New opportunities abound for our state’s agricultural producers, and they take pride in partnering in projects resulting in a healthier environment.”
“It’s interesting that biogas and alternative energy have become so much more valuable than they were just two or three years
ago,” Jim Cnossen adds. “Here in west Texas, we’re surrounded by some very large cattle feeding operations. We see this project as a great way for the large livestock industry to reduce its environmental footprint.”