Dairies plug into cow power
Visalia-based CalBio and Bloom Energy announce technology to convert manure into renewable electricity without combustion
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – A Visalia company is at the forefront of converting dairy waste into renewable electricity.
On Oct. 10, California Bioenergy LLC (CalBio) in Visalia and Bloom Energy in San Jose announced the first commercially viable technology to capture methane gas from cow manure and use an electrochemical process to store the energy into fuel cells that can power electric vehicles.
The collaboration combines CalBio’s dairy digester technology with Bloom Energy’s solid oxide fuel cell technology where manure created by cows on the dairy can be converted into electricity that can be used on the dairy or added to the state’s power grid. More broadly, the fuel cells can store enough energy to power electric vehicles (EVs) throughout California.
“Our California dairy families play a critical role in producing nutritious, high-quality milk and dairy products, while, at the same time, engaging in air, water, and environmental sustainability efforts,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “This is a great example of the partnerships needed to advance technologies from the Silicon Valley and agriculturally rich Central Valley in order to move the needle further in renewable energy from dairies.”
CalBio CEO N. Ross Buckenham said his company has been using dairy digesters, which act as large stomachs, to convert solid manure into natural gas since 2006. Tech engineer Buckenham partnered with Neil Black, a leader in environmental sustainability, to form California Bioenergy (CalBio) 13 years ago when they began developing biodigester technologies for dairies. Six years ago, CalBio launched the largest dairy digester in the state near Bakersfield in Kern County, putting them at the forefront of making the technology commercially viable.
“In bringing together the best technology from Silicon Valley with the best technology from the Central Valley, we’re really doing something special for California,” Buckenham said. “With Bloom, we have found an ultra-clean ‘on-dairy’ biogas system that can scale from small to large dairies, with attractive economics for the capture and utilization of methane. We’ll create local jobs, generate income for dairy farmers, help the environment by reducing greenhouse gases and fossil fuel consumption and greatly improve local air quality.”
CalBio is directly involved in half of the 123 dairy digester projects in operation or development across the state. Ninety-four percent of those projects are at San Joaquin Valley dairies, 55 of which are in Tulare County. According to DairyCares.com, a single cow can generate enough renewable fuel to drive a car across the country. Five cows are enough to power a house for an entire year.
Bloom Energy’s technology is rooted in NASA. Bloom founder and CEO Dr. K.R. Sridhar was on the forefront of creating a technology to convert Martian atmospheric gases into oxygen to support life support and propulsion for space exploration. Sridhar’s team was able to build a fuel cell capable of producing air and fuel from electricity generated by a solar panel. This became the basis for the company’s Bloom Energy Servers which have been used by Google, and 25 other Fortune 500 companies, for more than a decade.
The CalBio-Bloom Energy solution not only produces clean electricity, it also removes methane that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere. Most of California’s large dairies are making plans to install digesters to capture biogas from their cow manure but are looking for a cleaner way to utilize this fuel. Biogas captured from cow manure contains approximately 65% methane, which has a 25 times greater impact on global warming than CO2 emissions and accounts for 105 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but is also a useful, renewable fuel.
“To achieve its ambitious climate goals, California has to embrace every innovation that can make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said KR Sridhar, founder, chairman, and CEO of Bloom Energy. “We’re proud to be tackling both the causes and consequences of climate change through this innovative collaboration with CalBio, and through the clean energy that Bloom provides to California businesses every day.”
How it works
CalBio digesters capture biogas, primarily consisting of methane, released from the anaerobic decomposition of dairy manure. CalBio’s technology also separates hydrogen sulfide from the biogas. The biogas is then converted to renewable electricity in a Bloom Energy Server through an electrochemical process. The Bloom Energy Server is the world’s most efficient electricity generator. It produces twice as much electricity as conventional combustion generators using the same amount of biogas.
Once generated, all of the renewable electricity can be transmitted via the electric grid to EV charging stations throughout California. Emissions generated by EV charging vary according to when EVs are plugged in to charge. For example, at night, California draws the largest portion of its electricity from burning natural gas or from imported power, including coal, so EV charging may not be very clean at all. Going forward, any EV network buying electricity from a CalBio-Bloom Energy dairy project will be able to provide their customers renewable electricity.
“Replacing diesel vehicles with compressed natural gas vehicles reduce emissions by 90%,” Buckenham said. “Electric is 99% cleaner than diesel, which is especially important in the Central Valley where we are a severe non-attainment level for ozone and nitrogen oxide.”
Greenhouse Gas Emission reduction in California
The state of California has set ambitious goals to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions, including methane. In order to advance these goals, the state provides grants and sets policy through the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Both small and large dairies deploying the new CalBio-Bloom Energy biogas solution will be eligible to apply for CDFA grants. CARB’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), meanwhile, creates value for low carbon fuels, enabling EV charging operators to buy the renewable energy credits generated by dairy farmers to meet carbon reduction goals.
“The urgency of the fight against climate change and unhealthy air quality requires us to slash potent, super-pollutant emissions, including methane from agriculture, and get combustion out of our energy and transportation systems,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. “This solution is a trifecta—slashing methane, avoiding combustion from electricity generation, and supporting our transition to electrified transportation.”
Air quality benefits
California’s Central Valley, and especially the San Joaquin Valley, where many dairies are located, has some of the worst air quality in the United States, as well as the highest rates of childhood asthma in California. Using fuel cells to generate electricity from dairy biogas, instead of combustion engines, eliminates smog-forming emissions, and improves air quality and public health. Charging more EVs with renewable electricity will contribute to air quality improvements throughout California, called for under the Governor’s Executive Order for five million zero-emission vehicles by 2030.
“While the San Joaquin Valley is already subject to the most stringent air quality regulations in the nation, innovative programs such as this, which assist in deploying the latest clean air technologies, play a vital role in addressing the Valley’s air quality challenges,” said Samir Sheikh, air pollution control officer and executive director for The San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District.