John Fiscalini named official EPA AgStar partner farm.
John Fiscalini named official EPA AgStar partner farm.

When it comes to dairy industry pioneers, one probably thinks of Stephen Babcock who developed the butterfat test that was the basis for DHIA testing, Gail Borden who received the first patent for condensed milk, or even Louis Pasteur who invented pasteurization and is considered to be the first person to discover that bacteria causes food spoilage and disease.

John Fiscalini might not be as famous as these pioneers. But, when it comes to renewable energy, he is paving the way for the dairy industry. He started down this path because he believes in the future of renewable energy and dairy digesters.

He has been repeatedly thwarted by regulation and bureaucracy at every turn.

Three and a half years ago, Fiscalini Farms started to build what he thought would be one of the first of many dairy digester projects in California. Today, he is the only one who has completed a system of his farm’s type, and very few people are willing to follow in his footsteps. Over-regulation and cost are prohibiting factors.

It has cost Fiscalini Farms an extraordinary amount of money. “When we started, the cost was advertised to me at about $2 million,” says Fiscalini. After construction began and after all the regulatory agencies became involved, the project came to $4.5 million. Fiscalini says he received close to $1 million in grant monies, but the rest is funded through loans. With a payment of $35,000 a month, the digester is barely paying for itself.

Fiscalini fondly calls his project the “Fiscalini digester fiasco” and recently formed a consulting partnership to hopefully prevent other dairy farms from falling into the same pitfalls and making the same mistakes as he did.

He has also embarked on a mission to do research at his facility. Since the digester was built, Fiscalini has received research grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to study if it is feasible to put digesters in across the U.S., to see if digesters are good sources of energy, and to look at whether or not digesters are economically viable.

The economic viability is where the problem comes in, says Fiscalini. Most people don’t want to put in a digester because there is really no return on investment.

In order to make digesters economically viable, the cost of the digester needs to be reduced, or else farms need to have the ability to bring in off-site waste (co-digestion) to make more power and generate more revenue.

Bringing in off-site waste is a concern for regulators, who think if a farm brings in off-site waste, such as fats, oils and grease from restaurants or cannery waste, they bring in more nutrients that would contaminate the ground water. There is no way to prove that this won’t happen until research is done.

With a grant from the California Energy Commission, Fiscalini hopes to do the research on co-digestion and prove that this won’t happen. But, he says he has been asking permission for more than six months and it doesn’t look promising. If Fiscalini Farms could bring in outside materials for co-digestion, it could produce enough energy to bring in an extra $15,000 per month.

Fiscalini is looking at reducing emissions and air pollution even further with the advent of a new research project. “Some people think it’s a good thing we’ve captured all of our methane,” says Fiscalini. But there is one regulatory agency in California that doesn’t care if the methane goes into the environment because the engine produces nitrogen oxide or NOx, an ozone precursor. “Realistically, what we’ve done is taken 25,000 automobiles off the road and added one diesel truck. This regulatory agency doesn’t like the truck.”

As a solution, Fiscalini Farms is going to install a system that will take the exhaust from the engine and the heat from the engine to grow algae, which should reduce the NOx and clean up the environment more than the dairy already has. This will be the first algae system of its kind installed on a dairy farm in the U.S. 

From the algae system, Fiscalini has three potential by-products:  livestock feed, more food for the digester and the ability to compress the algae to make oil which can be made into biodiesel. The biodiesel option, he says, seems to be the most promising, but also the most expensive.

“It would be really fun to say that we don’t buy electricity, we don’t buy propane, and we don’t buy diesel fuel," he adds.

A lot of people talk about doing the right thing, saving energy and reducing greenhouse gases, but here’s a dairy farm that has stepped up to the plate and is trying to do the right thing, yet has been met with opposition at every turn. It makes you wonder about the environmental regulators. Perhaps they should take a lesson from Fiscalini Farms and start walking the talk.

Fiscalini discusses the new algae project in this video.