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Now that's natural gas


Published on September 26, 2007
© 2007- The Press Democrat



Talk about tail pipe emissions.

St. Anthony Farm, a 315-acre dairy west of Petaluma, is the first in Sonoma County to convert cow doo-doo into renewable bio-gas.

So long as 250 dairy cows keep up with their end of the bargain, the farm will have an inexhaustible supply of energy for milking operations, a new creamery and many other needs.

``Poop to power,' was how the Rev. John Hardin described the technology Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the occasion at the Valley Ford Road farm.

In addition to being an organic dairy, St. Anthony also offers a rehabilitation program for drug- and alcohol-addicted homeless men. The farm is owned and operated by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church.

The star of the show Tuesday, however, was a 2.3-million gallon lagoon where cow dung fermented beneath billowing black tarps.

From there, the contents are piped to a machine that converts the methane into bio-gas. Farm officials hope to generate 80 kilowatts of power, enough to provide for most of St. Anthony's electricity needs.

The farm is now one of only a handful of dairies across the state to use a methane digester.

Supporters say the systems are good for the environment by reducing greenhouse gases. Covering the manure also could help with what is charitably known as ``Sonoma aroma,' a seasonal wafting of foul odors across the countryside.

Such systems can be expensive to install, although St. Anthony officials on Tuesday did not provide figures, saying the costs were combined with the new creamery, which will make butter for Clover-Stornetta.

At the height of California's energy crisis in 2001, the state earmarked $10 million to help defray some of the costs. But that money is running out, according to Michael Marsh, the chief executive officer of Western United Resource Development.

Marsh, who was among about two dozen local, state and federal officials at Tuesday's ceremony, said the challenge is coming up with new incentives for farmers to use the digesters.

He said some farmers produce more electricity than they need, but end up giving the surplus away to power companies.

``If St. Anthony Farm was to generate enough power that they were able to export electricity, they wouldn't be paid for it,' Marsh said.

Neil Winters, a senior project manager for PG&E, said the power company in some cases can't use bio-gas from dairy farms because it has not been cleaned of harmful byproducts, such as hydrogen sulfide.

But he also acknowledged that PG&E has yet to fully embrace the concept of bio-gas, and he said figuring out a formula for reimbursing farmers for the power they sell would be a ``complicated' equation.

``Six months ago, I wouldn't have talked about bio-digesters,' Winters said.

St. Anthony officials say their only goal for the moment is to power the farm using renewable fuels, a goal they say fits the farm's social values of helping others in need.

St. Anthony Farm became the second Sonoma County dairy to go organic and the third dairy in the North Coast to abandon pesticides and antibiotics to produce a milk that some consumers perceive as safer and cleaner.

The digester also helps with the farm's bottom line. Butter sales are expected to reach $20,000 a month, according to Hardin, who said the farm's annual budget is $19 million.

He also said the 45 homeless men who live at the farm will earn stipends working in the creamery, in addition to job skills that can aid their road to recovery.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.