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Cow power

12/08/06 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) Vermont's dairy farmers are developing a new product, according to commentator Ron Krupp, in a process that's a little like turning lead into gold.

(KRUPP) Chances are you've been hearing quite a bit about "cow power" of late. That's the idea behind dairy farmers producing electricity from manure. The way it works is, that energy is produced by an anaerobic process in which bacteria break down the cow manure in something called a digester, which releases carbon dioxide and methane gas. The methane gas fuels a generator, and energy is sent onto the power grid.

Central Vermont Public Service's Cow Power Program is the nation's first direct farm-to-consumer renewable energy project that processes cow manure to generate electricity. The thousand cows and 500 young stock at Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport are generating electricity - and lots of it. The cows make nearly 9,000 gallons of milk and about 35,000 gallons of manure a year.

Blue Spruce is producing enough electricity to power 3 to 400 average households per year. According to Earl Audette, who owns the farm with his brothers, "The cows are producing two streams of income: a milk check and a power check." Audette said, "This is one more way to diversify the farm, improve the bottom line, and manage our manure responsibly."

The large size of the Audette farm makes it a good candidate for electricity generation. There are only a handful of farms of this size in the Green Mountains, but digesters and other necessary quipment are being developed for smaller operations as well.

The Audette Farm received the first public service grant. In 2005, four more farms were awarded development grants totalling $660,000 to build farm-based manure and methane generating systems. The clean renewable energy generated from these farms will be enough to power 1,395 average homes with electricity per year. Three of the farms have over 1,000 dairy cows, and the fourth has 210 cows. And just recently, Pleasant Valley Farm in Richford, with 1500 cows, began producing enough energy for an additional 600 homes.

Cow power is also lighting the way for Vermont college students at Green Mountain College in Poultney, some 35 miles from Blue Spruce Farm. The college will pay an extra $48,000 on its $250,000 electricity bill to support this alternative energy source.

Other farms around the country are adopting the digester model to make energy. Some are loading their digesters with other waste products. One farmer in the state of Washington is using tomato waste from a salsa factory. Maybe one day I can use my kitchen compost to make enough energy for a hot cup of tea on a cold winter morn.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.

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