New Biogas Opportunities Roadmap is Part of Climate Change Solution, Emerging Biogas Industry Offers New Revenue Opportunities for America’s Farmers

Cross posted from the USDA blog.

Farmers have long understood the need to care for our air, land and water. They know that farms are more productive and efficient when they’re properly cared for. Protecting natural resources protects their bottom lines and may be able to improve them as well.

Farmers are always looking for ways to make a living and be good stewards of the land, which is why the emerging biogas industry is so important to rural America. Across the country, biogas systems that capture methane from farming operations and use it to generate renewable energy currently provide enough renewable energy to power the equivalent of almost 70,000 average American homes.

For example, in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, where agriculture is the third leading employer of county residents, there are two anaerobic digesters, both on dairy farms, and three wind farms in operation. Collectively, these systems generate enough power to support and sustain 8,000 households. With a total of 8,900 households located in the county, renewable energy is virtually powering the entire county.

The potential for the biogas industry is well demonstrated, but there are still relatively few biogas systems in use on farms across the country. Research indicates that an additional 8,000 livestock operations are candidates to support biogas projects, in addition to the 239 anaerobic digesters currently operating on farms across the country. If its full potential was realized, a cost-effective biogas industry could produce enough energy from the livestock sector to power 1 million average American homes.

That is why the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap (PDF), released today by the Obama Administration, is so critical. It supports the Climate Action Plan – Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions and outlines voluntary actions to support the expansion of the American biogas industry and help it live up to its full potential.

A comprehensive plan to confront climate change should address methane as well as carbon emissions. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities, responsible for about nine percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Use of biogas reduces emissions of methane, reduces the emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels, and supports the Administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

The Opportunities Roadmap builds on progress made to date to address some of the barriers that currently limit biogas development and supports voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions already underway across the country. It also reflects a commitment to continue working with industry stakeholders on identifying steps to expand the biogas industry, including through the development of new technologies. Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the U.S. dairy industry renewed a partnership in support of a voluntary industry goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farms by 25 percent by 2020. Methane capture systems are a significant component of this effort, and farmers stand to benefit significantly by the advancement of this technology.

It is important to point out that the emissions intensity of the production of meat and milk in the U.S. is much lower today that it was even a few decades ago. A recent report by FAO showed that North American production of milk and beef is among the most efficient in the world in terms of the GHG emissions per unit of production. With cost-effective technology deployment to utilize biogas, operations could capture increased revenues with reduced emission and other benefits, offering a “win-win” for farmers, communities and the country.

The Opportunities Roadmap also lays out a plan for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency to use existing programs to enhance the use of biogas systems in the U.S by conducting research to accelerate the development of bio-based products from biomass systems and strengthening programs that support farmers as they install these systems on their operations, among other things.

American farmers have a long history of innovation, and a strong commitment to conservation. These efforts are more important than ever as we face the challenges posed by a changing climate and weather variability. Supporting and expanding the biogas industry, using the plan outlined in the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, will help to strengthen those efforts while supporting new opportunities for America’s farmers, strengthening our economy, and ultimately making America more secure by increasing energy independence.

Learn more:

About the authors:

Paul Gunning is the Director of the Climate Change Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Todd Campbell is the Energy Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Reuben Sarkar is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation at the U.S. Department of Energy

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Love Food, Hate Waste

About the author: Cara Peck is an Environmental Scientist in EPA Region 9. For the past three years she has worked on the recycling of organic materials, but is now working on reducing the climate change and energy implications from the Agriculture Industry.

I love food. At various points along the day, it is a safe bet that I’m thinking about what to eat for my next meal. This could be the product of growing up in Northern California where we have amazing food, or it could be because I love to cook and eating logically follows cooking. Whatever the reason, I’m a huge fan of food.

While many share my love of the culinary world, there is an ugly and harmful side to the delicacies we enjoy- food waste. Organic waste, which includes food, currently makes up 25% of what is going to landfills. In addition to a host of other problems, landfills emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In an effort to try to get this food waste out of landfills, I started researching the anaerobic digestion of food waste. Basically, in an atmosphere without oxygen, bacteria feed on the food waste, break it down, and produce biogas in the process. Amazingly, biogas is an energy source, so in the process of reducing waste, energy is produced!

To further explore this project, I managed a few projects that investigated using this technology at wastewater treatment facilities. Many wastewater treatment facilities already use anaerobic digesters to break down sewage sludge. In addition, most of these digesters have excess capacity for something like… food waste!

Here’s a snapshot of how the process works: food scraps are collected at nearby restaurants. Then are sent to a local wastewater treatment facility, processed and injected into the anaerobic digesters. The bacteria go to work, break down the waste and produce biogas. The biogas is captured and used on site to power the facility, or even sent back to the grid. The residual that is left after the bugs have done their job is reduced, making it much easier to truck to the compost facility. Upon further composting, the material can be used as a soil amendment to grow more food. It’s a true closed-loop, sustainable system.

This technology has national applicability and I’m excited to see it more widely adopted in an effort to reduce waste and to combat climate change.

Since I do love food so much, I must admit that there isn’t often much waste left on my plate. However, I feel a little better about my love affair with food knowing that the waste that is left is going to a higher use and not contributing to climate change.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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