To go “green” and shrink the carbon footprint is a trendy thing to do these days. With almost $100 billion earmarked in the Congressional stimulus package for “green” technologies, the trend is here to stay.

Whether or not you believe in global warming, there is money to be made.

Every dairy producer should be looking at renewable energy on some level, says Perry Tjaarda, owner of Tjaarda Dairy in Shafter, Calif. “You need to determine on an individual basis what makes sense for your operation, but you should be looking at all forms of renewable energy.”

Here is a close-up look at three new technologies that dairy producers are adopting.   

Vehicle fuel

Hilarides Dairy in Lindsay, Calif., recently began fueling vehicles with compressed biomethane from its lagoon. These are the first vehicles in the United States to run on compressed natural gas from cows.

Manure from Hilarides’ 9,000 cows flushes to a covered lagoon digester where bacteria convert solids into biogas, which is captured by the lagoon covers. Biogas is piped from the digester to a biogas-upgrading system, where carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and other impurities are removed, yielding clean-burning biomethane.

Hilarides has converted two milk trucks and six pickup trucks to run on biomethane. Hilarides hopes to convert more vehicles to run on biomethane in the future, as the biogas-upgrading system is not running at full capacity. The dairy is capable of producing a daily equivalent of 700 to 800 gallons of diesel.

Mileage on the trucks is comparable to diesel — about six miles per gallon, says Rob Hilarides, owner of Hilarides Dairy. The dispensing pump is similar to those at compressed natural gas stations.

A scrubbing system like the one at Hilarides Dairy can range from $600,000 to $800,000, depending on site-specific considerations.

Hilarides offers this advice to dairymen considering biomethane: “Do your homework. The concept is simple, the details are complicated, and the regulations are maddening. But it’s definitely a cheaper source of fuel than diesel.”

Solar power

Scott Brothers Dairy and Elkhorn Dairy are harnessing the sun to power their operations.

Scott Brothers Dairy, located in San Jacinto, Calif., installed its first solar array this past year, with plans to do more in the coming years. Scott Brothers utilized the top of its existing commodity shed for the array. Although the building was not constructed with solar in mind, an engineer installed the needed structural improvements so the solar system could be mounted on the roof. The system at Scott Brothers Dairy is a 55-kilowatt system and cost $300,000 to $400,000. The owners think the system will pay for itself in five to six years.

Maintenance and operations costs are minimal to none with solar systems. “We went with solar because there are no moving parts and no engine,” says Brad Scott, co-owner of Scott Brothers Dairy. “Occasionally, we need to wash the panels off and that’s it.”

The solar system at Elkhorn Dairy in Visalia, Calif., is a 1-megawatt system and provides 80 percent of the dairy’s power. The system sits between the dairy’s above-ground lagoon and irrigation canal, with five acres of solar panels. The solar panels at Elkhorn Dairy track the movement of the sun.

The total system cost $8.5 million to install. Elkhorn Dairy set up a leasing program with Farm Credit Leasing, and after 10 years plans to purchase the system at a reduced price.

Scott Brothers Dairy and Elkhorn Dairy both took advantage of state and federal incentives to install their solar arrays. Both projects receive 22 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first five years. Additional federal incentives and accelerated tax depreciation are also available for solar projects. “If the incentives are right, it will pencil out,” says Scott. In the future, it may be possible to cash in on carbon credits.

Natural gas

One dairy in California has taken a new approach with manure digesters. Instead of capturing and burning the gas in a generator to create energy, the gas is cleaned, pressurized and injected into a natural gas pipeline. Early estimates indicate that two cows can provide power to one home for an entire year.

In this system, manure is flushed to a covered lagoon digester, where bacteria convert solids into biogas, which is captured by the lagoon covers. Biogas is piped from the digester to a biogas-upgrading system, where carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and other impurities are removed. The gas is then pressurized and injected into the pipeline. The removed carbon dioxide is flared or burned and hydrogen sulfide is broken down to create elemental sulfur, which can be used as a soil amendment.

David Albers, owner of Vintage Dairy and BioEnergy Solutions, has successfully injected gas into the Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline since last October. This business holds great promise. BioEnergy Solutions has signed contracts with 21 other dairymen and has 120 signed letters-of-intent.

Perry Tjaarda of Shafter, Calif., owns one of the dairies that signed on to this program. Two natural gas pipelines run through the dairy, and what was a nuisance when the dairy was under construction is now turning out to be a huge benefit. The 3,100 cows at Tjaarda Dairy will produce enough gas to power 1,550 homes.

Tjaarda says he wanted to invest in renewable energy that was a win-win for the environment and his pocketbook. Dairy producers who sign on to put gas in the pipeline are paid based on the amount of gas produced and a percentage of carbon credits. “At this time, piping biomethane into the pipeline appears it will be profitable for us,” says Tjaarda.

The system at Tjaarda Dairy is set to break ground in April or May of this year, with the hopes to be up and running by fall. 

Red Top Jerseys in El Nido, Calif., has also signed on to pipe gas into the pipeline. “The process of collecting biomethane and putting it in the pipeline was the easiest fit to our existing facility and management practices,” says Scott Wickstrom, co-owner of Red Top Jerseys and Wickstrom Jersey Farms. “If there is a benefit to the environment, we’re for it, as long as it’s economically feasible.” This system is set to break ground at the end of 2009.

Albers hopes to interconnect multiple dairies at each site.