When cow manure decomposes, it releases methane gas. The EPA says it's 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Because of that, a growing number of livestock farms are installing digesters to trap that gas and turn it into sustainable energy. In Fresno County, California, Bar 20 Dairy has so much energy left over (even after powering the farm), that the rest of the energy is going toward powering electric vehicles.
The anaerobic digester on the farm can hold up to 25 million gallons of manure and water. The EPA explains anaerobic digestion as a process through which bacteria break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen inside a sealed vessel.
Steve Shehadey is a third-generation owner of Bar 20 Dairy.
"About 15 years ago, we started hearing about digesters and became intrigued because one of the biggest costs that we face on the dairy is our power costs," Shehadey said.
Not only do digesters prevent methane from being released into the atmosphere, but they also produce renewable energy. Bar 20 Dairy is one of seven farms in the country to win a 2022 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award.
"I think what makes our project unique is the fuel cell," Shehadey said. "The fuel cell is the first of its type to run on biogas from a dairy. You know, these fuel cells, Bloom Energy has several hundred of these throughout the country, but normally they run on natural gas. And so, this, they took it one step further to take methane from a dairy. And instead of using natural gas, they use cleaned-up methane to produce energy, and as it's near zero emissions."
The energy the farm produces powers the entire dairy operation and what's leftover goes into the grid. The leftover energy is helping power electric vehicles all over the state.
Shehadey says the annual carbon emission reduction is equivalent to providing clean power to more than 17,000 electric cars per year.
"Dairy business is a tough business." Shehadey said. "There's less and less dairy farms every year, and so in order to be successful, I think this shows that we committed ourselves by the investment in this type of project, not just for milk, but for future generations."
Shehadey says we live in a time when dairy farms are collaborating to save money, resources, and the environment. Farms with digesters can reduce methane from decomposing manure, but that doesn't solve the issue of methane emission from cows. Shehadey says that's the next challenge.
"So, we're working on the waste here, but there's promising studies on additives that you can feed that help the feed efficiency of a cow so that she processes her feed with less methane," Shehadey said. "And they're also looking at genetic traits for breeding animals with genetics that have less methane traits. So, the future is exciting."