Imagine a day when the crops planted by the farmer down the road aren’t grown to supply food, but to produce electricity. This scenario is still largely unimaginable in the United States, but it’s been a reality for more than a decade in Europe, where new technology provides both a growing source of clean, renewable energy and financial stability to family farmers.
The energy is called biogas, and it’s based on the principals of decomposition and fermentation. Biogas systems, also called methane digesters, transform organic materials such as manure, crops, or food waste into methane, a fuel much like natural gas. Methane can be used to generate electricity and provide heat, and even a moderately sized biogas system can create enough electricity to pay for itself relatively quickly by selling power back to the grid.
In Germany, Austria, and Italy, it’s estimated that more than 4,000 biogas systems are in operation on farms of various sizes, mini-power plants that produce electricity around the clock. Some farmers who once ran dairy operations have even sold off their milk cows and now produce crops expressly for the purpose of making electricity.
For five days in early June, a ten-person delegation from upstate New York and Vermont visited six farms in Austria, which is a European leader in renewable energy. The trip was organized by MWK Biogas North America Corp., the US affiliate of a German designer of state-of-the-art biogas systems. In Europe, MWK and its subsidiaries boast annual sales of between 80- and 100-million Euros annually. The Americans’ aim was to observe how this cutting-edge technology is being applied to create efficient and cost-effective green energy systems, and consider how that technology can be imported to the US.
“I had to go to Austria to see how prehistoric the United States is,” says Albert Floyd, a community leader who owns the general store in Randolph Center, Vermont. Like others on the trip, he returned amazed by the widespread and sophisticated applications of all types of alternative energy technology in Austria, and by its beautiful farms and pristine countryside, untouched by suburbia. “This country is run by the oil and automobile industries,” Floyd says of the US. “We have our heads in the sand.”
The object of the delegation’s scrutiny was the newest generation of methane digesters designed by MWK. These biogas systems are comprised of a series of two to six interconnected, sealed tanks that break down organic materials in the absence of air. The technology mimics the process that takes place inside the four chambers of a cow’s stomach. Cows and other ruminants, such as sheep and goats, are able to break down the cellulose in grass and other plants to produce nutrients. In nature, methane is a by-product of the process, as anyone who’s stood near a gassy cow knows. In the biogas business, that gaseous substance is the end product.
According to those who have seen biogas systems at work, methane digesters are clean and durable, and emit only an inoffensive, earthy odor. The methane is stored and used like natural gas as a fuel to create electricity. Co-generated heat, which accounts for half the energy embodied in methane, is captured to heat buildings or water, or for other purposes. The solid by-product of the process can be sold as organic fertilizer. Biogas systems use big bladders to store methane, preventing its release into the atmosphere. Methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and some farmers are able to gain compensation for preventing the release of methane through biogas production, which is carbon-neutral.
Sylke Chesterfield of Rensselaer, New York, organized the tour. Chesterfield describes herself as an “affiliated agent” for MWK. Her introduction to the firm was fortuitous. In 2004, Chesterfield, who was born and raised in Germany and had been self-employed in business consulting and public policy for more than a decade, decided to try her hand as a translator. Her first client was a group of US businesspeople who were pursuing a partnership with MWK’s chief designer and CEO, Matthais Wackerbauer. The original business deal fell through, but Chesterfield, convinced of the brilliance of Wackerbauer’s biogas designs, continued to work with him to introduce his technology into the North American market.
Chesterfield brings the boundless enthusiasm of a convert to her position as so-called “chief bottlewasher” for the American venture. “It was the first time I could be passionate about something,” she says, allowing that she couldn’t find any “down side” to Wackerbauer’s systems to check her interest. With no official title and, as of June, no contract, Chesterfield has worked from her Rensselaer home to facilitate MWK’s North American start-up for a year, “based on my conviction,” she says, “that the technology is the best thing since sliced bread, and that the projects in development will actually come to fruition.”