David Albers wishes he could say the reason he’s covering his lagoon and capturing methane is because he had a genius epiphany one day, but instead he says he’ll be producing enough commercial-grade methane to power about 1,200 homes because of persistence and luck.
Albers, the owner of Vintage Dairy, is a third-generation dairyman whose 3,000-cow dairy is located in Fresno County, California. In addition to owning the dairy, Albers is an environmental lawyer with expertise in real estate, land use and environmental law. Albers’ work with dairyman clients who were in litigation over environmental issues or preparing to petition for new permits exposed him to many scenarios in which installing a digester was an option being considered.
“For years we could never find a way to make digesters make sense for clients because we could never get the utilities interested in buying electricity, so I thought, ‘Well, if [utilities] could just buy gas, wouldn’t that be a lot easier?” Albers says.
That thought led to him founding and operating BioEnergy Solutions (www.bioensol.com), a company that designs, builds and maintains waste-to-gas systems at dairies and processing facilities. In addition, the company also markets dairy producers’ methane and negotiates contracts with potential public and private energy buyers. In short, it’s a producer-led co-op for dairy methane. And Albers has already had energy buyers start lining up.
In 2006, Albers’ company signed a 10-year contract with PG&E, a California natural gas and utility company, to provide the utility with up to three billion cubic feet of scrubbed dairy methane, enough to power 50,000 homes. The contract guarantees a revenue source from selling methane and carbon credits for dairy producers who work with BioEnergy to capture methane. The contract took six months to negotiate.
“We didn’t give up talking to buyers. And it just so happened that, by dumb luck I suppose, we found the right people at PG&E to talk to about biogas,” Albers says. “I wish I could say that I had this great vision [about how to start the company]. But it was really that we just kept knocking on the doors.”
Several other factors have contributed to a favorable situation for producing biogas in California. Utilities in California, such as PG&E, have been mandated by the state to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2010. And at the same time state air quality boards oversee dairy emissions. Both regulations make digesters a favorable option.
But Albers says as attractive as the benefits of a digester are, dairymen don’t want the extra headache of maintaining another complex biosystem that is not core to their business. That’s why, he says, it was critical that his business model allow for the company to provide the operation and maintenance of the digester, not the dairyman.
“Digesters are living breathing things,” Albers says. “The dairyman simply has to continue to provide the digester with manure.”
Albers’ company retains engineers and consultants who advise dairy producers what digester technology they could install on their dairy. That’s important, Albers says, because he doesn’t want to be intrusive to the dairyman.
“We want to work with the dairyman to build a project that works for them,” Albers says. “We’re a company built by dairymen for dairymen. It’s all about making it work on the dairy and making it cash flow. Instead of saying, ‘This is how we do things. We want your manure.’”
Albers says he considered a plug-flow digester for his project, but he eventually decided to use a covered lagoon digester because he didn’t want to import any foreign material onto the dairy to mix with his manure and a covered lagoon fit with his dairy’s flush manure system and freestall sand bedding. He will continue to compost the dairy’s separated manure solids to use as fertilizer on the dairy’s 2,600 acres of cropland.
“The digester companies all come and knock on your door. How do you know which is the best? Or which is the best deal?” Albers says. “We will look at your place and understand your operation. Let us help you select the best system. Then we’ll pay for it, and we’ll make sure it is guaranteed to run so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Albers’ system connects to a PG&E mainline that abuts the back side of his dairy’s property. There his biogas is scrubbed and compressed before entering the utility’s line. Those two processes are the single most expensive part of the project, totaling one-third of the total installation cost. Albers says it’s most cost-effective to aggregate several dairies in a local area to generate biogas, piping it close to the utility pipeline and then using the same scrubber and compressor to create commercial-grade gas. Albers has partnered with a dairy near his own to do just that.
He also continues to solicit other dairy producers to join his “co-op.” The co-op model for marketing milk, he says, has served dairymen well throughout the years, and he believes it will also work for marketing dairy producers’ methane.
“I’m not a milk co-op cheerleader,” Albers says. “But I do see that by joining together we have a lot of upside on something we don’t individually know a lot about. And until things are truly established in the biogas marketplace, which I think will be a few years, everyone holding hands and sharing information are really good ideas.”
Albers says he enjoys dairying and practicing law because they both require daily ingenuity and hard work. And, he says, there’s still work ahead in the next 10 to 15 years to create a “greener image” that shows producers are the first environmental stewards.
“I don’t think digesters are the answer to life as a lot of environmentalists would make them out to be. But if we can use them in such a way to reduce emissions and generate power, everybody wins.” PD