Wild-Catting in the Cow Patties

Tapping Idaho's smellier natural resource


The defeat of Sempra Energy's plans for a major coal-fired power plant in southern Idaho was celebrated during Earth Day celebrations as far away as San Francisco last week. Many Idahoans were proud of the efforts of Senator Clint Stennett and others in the Idaho Legislature who stood up to the energy giant and sent them packing.

But the question remains: How will Idaho provide energy needs for its growing population?

Intrepid Technology and Resources, a home-grown, publicly traded company from Idaho Falls, would like to capitalize on the recent interest in renewable energy by using what they see as a vast, untapped natural resource: cow manure.

Intrepid has plans to transform millions of tons of the stuff through bio-digester conversion into pipeline-quality methane gas to heat Idaho homes beginning next summer. A new 15-year contract with Intermountain Gas Company to accomplish this feat, beginning in 2007, marks the first time a biogas company will sell its product commercially.

If cow patties are the new black gold, southern Idaho may be the equivalent of a Texas oil field.

The Department of Agriculture reports that rapid consolidation of dairy operations since 1991 have brought the number of Idaho dairy cattle from 178,000 head to nearly 500,000 in 2005. The production of milk has increased from 2.8 billion pounds during this period to more than 10 billion pounds, making Idaho dairies a $1.4 billion industry.

But while most of Idaho's milk is shipped east, the manure is not. A drive through Rupert en route to Hagerman on a warm summer day can be a devastating experience due to the odors from dairy manure lagoons, which are constructed as part of state-regulated waste management practices.

Gary Bahr, bureau chief of water quality at the Idaho Department of Agriculture is aware of the potential threat that dairy waste nitrates pose to groundwater quality around the Magic Valley's 740 dairy operations.

"Dairies may have been contributing to groundwater issues in recent years." he said. "Biomass facilities could assist in managing dairy waste and avoid water impacts, while helping dairies to become more energy self-sufficient."

But where some see an environmental threat, Dennis Keiser, president and CEO of Intrepid Technology and Resources, sees opportunity. He refers to the sprawling dairy farms of southern Idaho as the "West Magic Valley Biogas Field."

"The potential size of the green gas market in the state of Idaho is quite large," said Keiser. "If even half of the animal waste in the state were utilized for methane production, it would offset one-third of all natural gas consumption annually and on a renewable basis."

Keiser began exploring alternative fuel technologies while working as the manager of science and technology at Idaho National Laboratory (formerly INEEL). At INL, Keiser was involved with research and development of both nuclear technologies and renewable energy plans for biodeiesel and ethanol production, as well as anaerobic biomass digesters like those used by Intrepid's pilot project at Whiteside Dairy near Rupert.

Owner Steve Whiteside and his 4,000 cows have played host to the anaerobic digester system since January of 2005. Whiteside's traditional manure processing activities have been augmented by the digester, producing better bedding material for cattle and more useful fertilizer for his fields. He burns the resulting methane himself year round for hot water and cleaning activities at the farm.

"I think the potential for this is very real," said Whiteside. "The environment is right in terms of rising gas prices. The system is working well but will only be profitable when we begin selling the methane to market."

The process of turning farm waste into methane gas requires a strong stomach to imagine. Tons of manure and other unsavory items such as chicken guts, blood and other toxic farm by-products are sealed into an airtight 35,000-gallon tank where vast colonies of bacteria consume and transform the offal into combustible gas. The gas is then cleaned and refined at cleaning stations to pipeline standards. Biogas, Keiser said, needs cleaning to remove impurities, much like the gas from a conventional natural gas well. Intrepid is currently working to meet pipeline standards, Keiser said, using "off-the-shelf gas cleaning equipment."

Bio-digester technology is nothing new. Rural Chinese farmers have been cooking noodles with methane gas recovered from pigsties for generations. Their simple apparatus involves a copper tube which connects an enclosed manure pile out back with a gas burning stove in the kitchen. Periodically, these digester systems clog and one can only guess how scarce the kids become when it's time to clean out the bio-digester.

Clogging has also been a problem with farm-sized digesters in the eastern U.S., where it can take weeks to cultivate a new colony of bacteria after shutting down a system for cleaning. Blowing sand and dirt are the usual culprits, eventually choking the systems and causing shut-downs. Keiser maintains that his technology, developed and licensed by Utah State University professors under the auspices of Logan, Utah-based Andigen Corporation, has solved this problem.

Whiteside's dairy is currently 11 miles from the nearest natural gas pipeline. In the near future, he plans to install 10 more digester tanks and begin trucking the methane to market.

For other dairies, such as Intrepid's proposed West Point project, the location will take immediate advantage of the existing Intermountain Gas pipeline network.

Mike Huntington, Intermountain Gas vice president of marketing and external affairs, is optimistic about Intrepid's plans.

"We are excited to have found a new source of gas,one that can have an economic benefit to the state, while providing an opportunity to solve some of the waste management issues within the dairy industry," he said.

Keiser hopes the Whiteside Dairy's success will help Intrepid secure portions of the recent loan guarantee program introduced with last year's federal energy bill, which holds incentives for developing bio-fuels. "We'd like to sequester $150 million of those loan guarantees for Idaho dairy farmers to build anaerobic digesters," said Keiser. "With 2,500 to 3,000 digesters, we could develop the West Magic Biogas Field to an economy of scale and produce enough gas from 150,000 cows to heat 50,000 homes in Idaho."