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Dairies are emerging as an energy source for California while substantially cleaning the air
Dennis Wyatt new mug 2022
Dennis Wyatt

Don’t be surprised one day if you encounter gas refineries as you drive around the Valley countryside.

That’s because the milk you have poured on your cereal this morning, the newest of the 32 flavors you may enjoy as a treat this afternoon from Baskin-Robbins or the butter that you may spread on a dinner roll tonight all required the creation of methane gas to produce.

More precisely the cows that produced the milk generate a lot of cow poop that is extremely rich in methane gas. So rich that between the 1.7 million plus dairy cows in California it is the No. 1 source of methane, a greenhouse gas more problematic than carbon dioxide when it comes to air quality.

Research shows methane gas over the course of a century has an impact 34 times greater than CO2.

Turning that methane gas cows produce into viable almost emission-less fuel is now possible on a viable economic scale due to evolving technology and California greenhouse gas subsidies.

Dairy gas is the cleanest fuel by far on Sacramento’s greenhouse rating scale even leaving food waste gas in the dust such as what many cities produce in conjunction with methane gas generated from the municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Firms such as California Bioenergy, known as CalBio, install covered lagoons at dairies that function as a digester. Manure is flushed from dairy stalls into the digester. This allows methane gas to be collected for processing.

In the case of dairy farms there needs to be a lot of them in relatively close proximity where the methane gas can be piped to central location for purification. After that is done, the pure biogas is intermixed with a local utility’s pipeline.

It is why many of the state’s growing number of dairy-gas facilities can be found in the dairy-rich central San Joaquin Valley around communities such as Tulare.

Given the changing tech, greenhouse credits, and the market plus the locations of PG&E natural gas lines the day may come when dairies throughout the Valley will be producing biogas to warm homes, power factory furnaces, and even power vehicles.

You might think this is a bit crazy given the fiats issued out of Sacramento by the Newsom administration and the California Legislature to go to the exclusive sale of non-emission new vehicles starting in the year 2035 and the push to ban natural gas heating and appliances in new construction.

But as with all initiatives pushed through the political system by zealots, they often lack perspective due to their myopic nature. They gain enough universal support to pass given their basic objective. In the case of vehicles and the future consumption of energy in new homes, it is the need for better air quality as well as to reduce manmade pressure on the climate change dial.

The reason why the use of methane to produce biogas that essentially supplants relatively clean burning natural gas is good old-fashioned scientific logic. Since man is going to create human waste and so are dairy cows that figure heavily into the nutritional and dietary needs of 7 billion people, preventing methane from being released into the atmosphere and using it to power things such as cars is an extremely powerful process for bettering the overall environment while sustaining human survival.
It is true that at the point of consumption — in this case powering vehicles — electric batteries are zero emissions. Biogas comes awful close to being zero emission at the point of fuel consumption.

But when you factor the process required to create the fuel source, biogas runs circles around electricity. That’s due to the biogas production process preventing the release of extremely problematic methane gas into the atmosphere. Remember, over a 100-year period science has deemed methane gas to be 34 times more harmful than CO2.

The assumption that electricity generated by solar, wind, or water will be the only power source of the future assuming nuclear power is still on the outs with the environmental movement is as short-sighted as assuming in 1901 that horses would be the prevalent mode of transportation for the following 100 years.

All of those renewable power sources have pitfalls in terms of reliable generation. Water in drought or even normal late summer conditions doesn’t always flow, the wind dies down, and there are nights as well as days with fog, rain, clouds or hazy pollution.

There is also the practicality of battery powered vehicles in a variety of locations and operations not to mention vast remote areas of California. The same goes for electricity — whether it is delivered by power lines or generated on site — providing the means to heat homes, warm water, and cook meals in areas such as the snowed in Sierra.

It is why biogas has a strong future.

Not only can it be easily stored without losing its potency as a fuel, but it also reducing greenhouse gases significantly through its production.

None of this dismisses the need for zero-emission vehicles and weaning off fossil fuels.

In terms of problem solving and getting ultimately the best possible air quality and the greatest reduction of impacts man’s civilization has on climate change, biogas is a much more effective commodity.

We clearly need both.

It is also clear 100 percent electric vehicles and 100 percent electric homes aren’t 100 percent reliable to do the job under all conditions and — based on trends of the last 50 years or so — are more expensive.

A simple comparison of the heat generated per British therm and the cost to do so when it comes to water heaters powered by natural gas versus electricity underscores that point.

If you think of earth as a “planet ship” biogas makes perfect sense.

By harnessing and recycling what humans need to stay alive in a space lab whether it is water or other elements creates a sustainable environment.

Putting methane gas to good use is an extension of science driven by research as opposed to science driven by politics.