Skip to content Skip to navigation

Under New Pollution Regulations, Milk Producers Seek Profit in Dairy Air

Alessandro Hall
Apr 24 2018

From tests on metal bovines to electricity-generating manure pits, California is experiencing a radical transformation in the practices of the dairy industry. Taken together, the new initiatives amount to more than a crackdown on flatulent cows. They offer a model: how to reduce emissions while finding new sources of revenue.

Dairy cows in front of a digester in an undated photograph.

Keeping Methane Under Wraps By putting a cover over manure pits, dairy farmers can capture methane and use it to generate electricity or make transportation fuel. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

By Alessandro Hall

It’s no secret that the U.S. dairy industry has been struggling recently. As it faces depressed milk prices, concerns about water quality, fights over animal rights, and the rise of non-dairy alternatives — almond, soy, and rice “milk” — the dominant stature of milk in American culture is under siege.

So when the strictest rules in the country for curbing methane emissions took effect in California this year, the state’s 1,300 dairy farm families could have seen it as a devastating development. Methane is a natural product of bovine digestion, after all.

But for Paul Sousa, who grew up as part of California’s dairy industry, these rules feel a bit different. The state isn’t just telling farmers to make changes to reduce methane emissions, it’s telling them how, offering help, and showing ways that changes could be profitable.

Sousa grew up on a dairy farm and his family runs two of them in San Joaquin County. Now he works as a lobbyist at Western United Dairymen, an industry trade group. In all that time, he’s seen a lot of regulations. “We’ve gone through this with water quality and air quality,” he says, but those didn’t come with any economic incentives or financial support. Then came the measure called Senate Bill 1383.

A new law calls for reducing methane emissions by 40 percent from its 2013 levels by 2030, but comes with government outreach, economic incentives, and grant programs to help remake a more sustainable dairy industry.

This ambitious bill, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, targets short-lived climate pollutants like methane, fluorine, and black carbon. These potent greenhouse gases don’t stay in the atmosphere like others. But they are far more effective at trapping heat: 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year span. They contributed to 42 percent of California greenhouse-gas emissions in 2013. The state’s 1.7 million dairy cows are the primary culprit.

The new law calls for reducing methane emissions by 40 percent from its 2013 levels by 2030, but comes with government outreach, economic incentives, and grant programs to help remake a more sustainable dairy industry. For Sousa, “this one has a very different feeling with the economic support that’s coming with it.”

The new rules, which could take effect in 2024, have wide-ranging implications for the oil, gas, and landfill sectors all over the state. But no region will feel its impact more strongly than the Central Valley, the heartland of the state’s milk-making operations. “In California, dairy is the big source of methane emissions,” says Ryan McCarthy, Science and Technology Policy Adviser at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state agency tasked with finding a way to meet the 40-percent target reduction. “Dairy manure … seems like the more readily addressable source emissions rather than the cows themselves,” he said. With a view to the California Air Resources Board gaining regulatory authority over the dairy industry in 2024, the agency is working proactively with dairy operators to prepare for needed changes.

Beyond Carbon Dioxide: A Look at California’s Greenhouse Gases

Source: California Air Resources Board   Geoff McGhee
 

Can “Digesters” Turn a Pollutant Into a Profit Center?

From tests on metal bovines to electricity-generating manure pits, California is experiencing a radical transformation in the practices of the dairy industry. Taken together, the new initiatives amount to more than a crackdown on flatulent cows. They offer a model: how to reduce emissions while finding new sources of revenue. Aided by government grants and technology innovations, farmers are beginning to upend dairy management orthodoxy.

The traditional method of treating manure is to flush it into fields or large, open-air lagoons. There, microbial organisms break down the waste through anaerobic digestion, spewing methane into the atmosphere. Although 60 percent of California’s dairy cows are still managed this way, all signs point to an emerging approach: When open-air lagoons are covered and sealed, dairy farmers can capture methane and use it to generate electricity or make transportation fuel. These systems, known as anaerobic dairy digesters, offer both environmental and economic benefits.

According to McCarthy, the California Air Resources Board believes digesters will deliver air quality, climate, and economic benefits. “If we can prove that model, we’ll get more projects faster.” He added, “it’s a win for the climate, for the air, for the farmer, and, when it does come time to regulate, it’ll be business as usual.” The dairy industry’s representative Paul Sousa says he also sees collateral advantages of eschewing methane-spewing manure lagoons: digesters offer water-quality benefits, and can generate cow bedding or fertilizer as additional byproducts.

Expensive Flops Feed Suspicion Among Dairy Farmers

But before environmentalists, energy companies, and the government can leverage these benefits to create a more sustainable industry, they must rebuild trust with the dairy farming community. “When we started this, there were a handful of dairy digesters, maybe ten or 15, and a lot of stories of ‘well we’ve tried this before. It didn’t work then, why will it work now’?” admits McCarthy. “And the answer, we said, is that we weren’t really committed to making it work then and we are now. And there’s all these programs in place that can make it work and we want to work with you to figure it out.” He believes the message is getting through. “It’s a market that’s growing quickly.”

Digester developers agree. There’s growing interest and enthusiasm for digesters, but also skepticism from dairy farmers weary of unmet promises. “I think our biggest real obstacle right now it that so many of these digester projects in the past have failed. There have been a lot of digesters built in the past that are no longer running,” says Doug Bryant of Maas Energy Works, a California company that helps develop, finance, and operate dairy digesters.

But the company argues that developers have learned valuable lessons and collected data on how to increase digester longevity and efficiency. Maas Energy Works has built 13 operational digesters with another 17 in various stages of development. “There’s been a lot of people throughout the last ten to 15 years who have come making promises about the money that [farmers will] make with digesters and never deliver on those promises,” Bryant explains. “We like to think our company is changing the way that’s perceived.”

Dairy Cows the Main Reason for California's Methane

Dairies are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for roughly 60% of agricultural contributions of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20).

Dairy Sources
Other Sources of Methane

Move over the graphic to learn more. Click on a category to view sub-categories.

Source: California Air Resources Board

Promoters Hope to Overcome Past Experiences with Technical Support, Financing, and State Subsidies

One way Maas Energy Works changes the perception of dairy digester projects is by forging a working relationship with dairymen. In the past, developers have come in, constructed a digester, and then left. The farmers had to operate and maintain the device. As Bryant explains, “the dairyman in most cases is already running a million-dollar company and has their own huge business to manage. Trying to give them another business to manage doesn’t always work out well.” His company now allows dairy farmers to own the digesters, while operating and repairing the devices for them.

Now, a flurry of new anaerobic dairy digesters has popped up across California. More than 40 are functioning or in construction; most of them built in the last 18 months. At least another 40 projects are on the way. A big reason for the construction boom is state investment. With $99 million in greenhouse gas reduction money in hand, the California Department of Food and Agriculture plans to allocate between $61 and $75 million in grants to help finance dairy digester projects through the Dairy Digester Research and Management Program in 2018.

The program is essential to help farmers finance digester projects. The typical digester on a small dairy of 1,000 to 2,000 cows costs about $ 2 million, while larger farms can run up costs of more than $5 million. Greenhouse gas reduction credits will also help determine the affordability of digester projects. Ideally, these reward farmers for reducing methane emissions. But the instability of the markets is a limit on new projects. The value of government credits for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions fluctuates, making banks potentially hesitant to lend money to a project.

“If the payback doesn’t pencil out in five to six years or less, we don’t like to encourage guys to get into it, because that’s a long payback,” say Mass Energy’s Bryant. With the milk market struggling, farmers may be even more risk averse. With this in mind, the new law directs the government to develop new financial mechanisms. The aim: to solidify and add certainty to the projected value of carbon credits.

State Faces a Challenge: Deliver Concrete Benefits to Farmers

A 900-cow dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, uses a methane digester, above.Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr
 

Success for these new digester projects will depend on farmers seeing benefit from the state’s environmental goals. As CARB’s Ryan McCarthy explains, “there’s still the early movers and some that are not necessarily as engaged as others but a lot of [dairy farmers] — as seen in the pickup in the number of projects — …hopefully see it as an opportunity.”

The law calls for various stakeholders to join a working group to create a sustainable market for energy produced from dairy digesters. “I think what SB1383 has done is created a forum to actually have conversations about how to promote [these projects],” says Fariya Ali of Pacific Gas and Electric. “I think that’s a positive thing to have a dedicated forum convened by the state agencies that allows energy companies and the developers and others to come together.”

Much of the conversation revolves around how to connect the energy produced from dairy digesters with the rest of the California energy system. There is also hope that transporting biomethane away from dairy farms in pipelines will improve air quality in the Central Valley.

Although the electricity and fuel generated from digesters is unlikely to radically change the energy market in California, it can offer significant economic benefits for individual farms. Under the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program and Renewable Feed-In Tariff program, dairy farmers benefit from above market-rate credits. How? The economic gains from selling energy help pay for the cost of project installation, and also lower or eliminate a farm’s monthly electricity bill and offer a potential revenue stream.

Dairy digesters aren’t the law’s only focus. Although manure lagoons are a major source of methane, the state Department of Food and Agriculture is also helping pay for alternative strategies. This year, it plans to allocate between $19 million and $33 million to the state’s Alternative Manure Management Program. The law also established a working group looking at ways to remove volatile, methane-producing compounds from manure before it enters lagoons. These initiatives are less expensive than digesters and more familiar to dairy farmers.

The alternative management practices provide options for a diverse California dairy industry. “Not everything works on every dairy,” says Sousa. A dairyman “is going to pick from the menu and say this one works for me, this other one doesn’t.”

Researching Ways to Reduce Methane at its Source: Gassy Cows

Cows at the Joseph Gallo Dairy farm in the Central Valley in 2007. The farm’s use of dairy digesters was the subject of a television feature.KQED via Flickr
 

A third major focus of SB1383 is the development of a research working group to fill gaps in industry knowledge. Least is known about fixing the problem of enteric fermentation- the technical name for methane produced during digestion and released in cow burps. In 2015 bovine gas made up almost 30 percent of state methane emissions in the agricultural sector.

There aren’t any proven cost-effective strategies to curb this. The research group is soliciting ideas about what to do. “That working group has been trying to be expansive about the way we look at reducing our methane problem rather than putting all our eggs in the manure management basket,” says Joan Salwen, founder of Elm Innovations, a group that intends to submit their idea about possibly feeding seaweed to cows to cut down on their gas.

Digesters, alternative manure management strategies, and research initiatives seem to suggest radical recent changes. But the dramatic shift in California’s dairy industry may have started earlier. In 2012, the industry made a nationwide commitment to reduce methane emissions 25 percent by 2020. In that sense, the rules set in SB1383 are not far off the industry’s trajectory. “It’s not completely out of touch with things we’ve been working on, but it is a challenge when we get a mandate to do something else that comes with a cost if it doesn’t come with additional revenue,” says Sousa.

What’s different now is that financial investment goes with the crackdown on dairy-farm methane. For now, at least, the revenue is coming in and the digesters are going up. Sousa says, “I think that’s been key to the response, from the initial response of ‘Oh, yet another thing we’ve got to deal with’ to, we’re making lots of headway toward meeting our goals with funding.”

and the west logo

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Changing Currents: Picturing a Northwest Without Cheap, Public Hydropower

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if, instead of public utilities, that power had been sold by private firms seeking profits?

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer and Rebecca Nelson

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 17, 2018

Pollution on the California-Mexico Border, Some Carried by the New River, flows though the region. Some of it wafts through the air that carries factory fumes over Mexico and Calexico, Some rises from fetid garbage dumps. It all does serious harm to the health of local residents. A series of articles show smokestacks, traffic exhaust, dust, and smoke from trash fires, often leave the cities blanketed in hazy air. The pollution is linked to high rates of respiratory illnesses and deaths. The Desert Sun

We Knew the California Snowpack Was Declining. Now We Know How Fast: 79 Percent by the century’s end. As it fades, much less snowmelt can be drawn on to fill huge reservoirs such as Shasta, Oroville and Folsom. All this as the state’s population and farm economy continue to grow. The new reality that will require fundamental changes in the way California and the federal government have operated the state’s water system for nearly 100 years. San Jose Mercury-News

In Sacramento, Two New Decisions on Dividing the Waters. In one, the state’s top water agency decides to send more water to Delta fish populations on the San Joaquin River, angering farmers and cities. In another, the governor defers to the federal government and makes more water available to farmers. Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Bee

A Federal Ultimatum Declared on a Colorado River drought contingency plan. Get it done by January 31, said the Bureau of Reclamation Representative told the seven states negotiating the plan — or we’ll do it for you. California and Arizona are the last states to fall into line. But this plan, when it is final, could be a bridge to another agreement to manage the water world of the Southwest as the climate changes and the water disappears. Also: how to think about the future. Denver Post Cronkite News John Fleck

Big Utilities Plan Power Shutoffs to Avoid Sparking Wildfires, while the experience of the Camp Fire indicates that small local power grids enhance the resilience of areas in the wildland-urban interface. Utility Drive

Should Washington State Breach Dams to Preserve Orcas? The decline of Puget Sound’s orca population has many probable causes: toxins in the water, noise from boats and lack of food. Chinook salmon are its primary food, and salmon runs are feeble, despite tens of millions spent by hydropower authorities to bolster salmon runs. As part of a $1 billion-plus save-the-orca effort, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a $750,000 plan to investigate the impact should four Lower Snake River dams be removed. It drew criticism from the northwest’s congressional Republicans. Idaho Statesman

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 4, 2018

There’s a Bullseye on the American West, When One Looks at Climate Change and its economic and ecological consequences, according to a recent federal report. The report emphasizes growing water scarcity, wildfires, sea-level rise, and health costs brought on by climate change. Tribal, local, and state governments are working on climate adaptation plans. High Country News Denver Post Arizona Daily Star

The Private Firefighter Industry Grows. In response to worsening fires across the West, demand has increased for private firefighter companies. But private firefighters are not an affordable option for many homeowners. Mountain West News Bureau/Elemental

A Sanitation Crisis at the Border. Water contaminated with sewage could have health impacts in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose residents are advocating for water treatment plants and updates to infrastructure. Ticklish relations between the United States and Mexico complicate sewage management policies. NRDC

A Measure to Cut Back Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas Advances. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Liz Cheney, would release around 400,000 acres of federal wilderness study areas in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties to general management, eliminating special protections. Park County commissioners are hoping that the bill will be amended to also release the local McCullough Peaks and High Lakes wilderness study areas to less restrictive management. The Powell Tribune

Recycling Scandal Crosses State Lines. A group of Arizona residents are accused of stealing over $16.1 million from California’s beverage recycling program by bringing in thousands of bottles and cans from Arizona. The CalRecycle program gives California residents an opportunity to earn back a tax added to bottled goods by recycling their bottles and cans at special facilities. This is the first recycling scandal in California to cross state jurisdictions. Arizona Republic

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 20, 2018

Raging Fires Made California’s Air 60 Times Dirtier than world health standards last week, and more than 10 times worse around the San Francisco Bay area, as smoke from the Camp Fire in Paradise sat on communities 200 miles away. Smoke, not flames, is the deadliest public health risk from wildfires. Bloomberg Grist

As Lake Mead’s Levels Drop, Can Seven States in the Colorado River Basin Agree on a drought contingency plan to share the predicted water shortage? A rebellion by two Arizona agencies may impel the six other states to make decisions on their own. Op-ed articles by the state’s governor and a former Interior Secretary scold the agencies for their intransigence. As Gov. Doug Ducey wrote, “The foundational purpose of a multi-state drought contingency plan is to transition to a drier future….However…demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions.” Phoenix New Times Arizona Capitol Times Arizona Republic

Gray Wolves’ Protection Under the Endangered Species Act May Not Last, if a bill just passed by Congress becomes law. The measure ends federal protection from the wolves in the 48 contiguous states. In the Northwest, where wolves are considered endangered in the western two-thirds of Oregon and Washington, state agencies would take over. Environmental groups say the wolves’ recovery goals are not far off, but may not be reached if the federal government bows out. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With The New Approval of An Industrial Solar Facility in the California Desert, and the news that its electricity has already been sold, the state, which is already ahead of its legislated goals for renewable energy development, will give a big boost to the national boom in renewable energy — a national success that will eventually face strong competition from China. Clean Technica Solar Industry Magazine Solar Industry Magazine Time

Their Canadian Cousins Thrive, But the Orcas of Puget Sound Face An Existential Crisis. While they are the most studied whales in the world, they among the most endangered orcas. As the population of Canadian orcas has grown by 250 percent since 1974, and is at 309, the population of Puget Sound’s pods, now 74, has grown barely nine percent in the same period. Experts blame the impact of the expanding human and industrial presence in the orcas’ range. The three southern pods have not successfully reproduced in three years. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has put together a task force on recovering the whales. Seattle Times

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 7, 2018

Six Western States Have Voted on Contested Environmental Policies. Five of Them Failed. Some ballot initiatives gave midterm election voters a chance to support salmon populations in Alaska or to support a fee on carbon emissions or to oppose recent environmental rollbacks involving drilling. Oil, gas, and mining companies poured money in opposition to statewide ballot measures that could increase costs or diminish revenues. The story of the campaigns and the work of environmental groups ran before the election. The results came today, in places ranging from Colorado to Washington State to Alaska. Mother Jones Denver Post Montana Standard PV Magazine Seattle Times KTUU Anchorage

The Navajo Tribe’s Future Without Its Major Employer and With a New President. As the various financial schemes for prolonging the life of the Navajo Generating Station fell apart, tribal members who work there must choose between finding employment where the new owners assign them, or staying on the reservation until the plant closes a year from now, then having a small chance of any job that pays as well. Their decisions will be made against a new political backdrop, as Joseph Nez, at 43, was just elected the youngest Navajo president ever. ASU/Cronkite News Indian Z News

Rare Dinosaur Fossils Are Threatened by the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Vast areas of land that may contain important paleontological discoveries are now vulnerable to potential energy development. About 250,000 acres of land with a high potential for fossils are being considered for mineral development. Salt Lake Tribune

A Water Reckoning in Colorado. Farming communities in the North Fork Valley of Colorado are water-rich in an era of increasing water scarcity. Farmers continue to use high volumes of water for irrigation. However, with climate change, the community will have to change outdated and inefficient systems in order to share water more cooperatively. High Country News

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in British Columbia. Activist Jessie Housty, a member of the Haíłzaqv nation, is educating young people in her community about their traditional food sources and culture. Her efforts are part of a larger movement to address food insecurity and malnutrition in indigenous communities through providing access to cultural foods. Civil Eats

Graphics & the West

 

Recent Center News

Jan 15 2019 | ... & the West Blog
Unsold beans pile up in the Northwest; Spokane grapples with a toxic legacy; native treaties clash with Wyoming hunting laws; Phoenix plans for more heat; and kids serve on snowflake watch – some of this week’s notable environmental stories.
Jan 10 2019 | Stanford Daily | Topics of the West
“Domestic rural communities are therefore underrepresented at Stanford by a factor of four. And we know that about five percent of Stanford’s undergraduate alumni live in domestic rural places,” writes Thomas Schnaubelt of the Haas Center for Public Service.
Dec 27 2018 | Center News
Together with Stanford Athletics and the West family, we are pleased to announce the successful creation of an endowed memorial fund to permanently commemorate Heather West’s love of the American West.