Friday, March 9, 2012

Rosendale Dairy partners with UWO for New Biodigester Research

Who would have known an opportunity to turn cow poop into cash would be right under everyone’s noses? Or that the effort would not only reduce the odor of manure at an area mega-farm but could also result in a learning and research lab and public education center at the same time?

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells on Friday let out a robust laugh at the notion that all of those things could be accomplished with cow manure as the main component.

A proposal for the university and partners to build a large, wet anaerobic biodigester and biogas facility at Rosendale Dairy at Pickett in Fond du Lac County would turn cow manure into energy that could be sold to power companies.

If the proposal plays out, Wisconsin’s largest dairy farm — Rosendale Dairy — will be home to what UWO officials call one of the state’s most dynamic research, renewable energy production and public education facilities in an initiative involving the UWO’s College of Letters and Science and UW-Oshkosh Foundation.

Rosendale Dairy, owned by Milk Source, Inc., has 8,400 milking cows, which each year produce millions of gallons of manure. Last year the cows at the dairy produced enough manure to spread as fertilizer on 8,656 acres of farm land. The land-spreading has been an irritant to neighbors who claim the odor is so strong on some days that they can not venture out of doors.

The biodigester would address some of the odor problems that crop up now, a company spokesman said.

It would work by anaerobically decomposing the cow manure in the odor-controlled environment of a large digester. The decomposition of organic matter produces methane gas that is burned in engines to produce electricity that can be sold to local power companies, said Greg Kleinheinz, professor of microbiology and associate dean of the College of Letters and Science.

“One of the big benefits is that as the odor portion of the manure is essentially removed, it does not lose the nutritional value. It’s still a value to farmers on fields,” Kleinheinz said.

The digester would reduce the volume of the manure by about a third, Kleinheinz said. But because the manure contains more nutrients per pound once it’s been through the biodigester, farmers can apply less manure per acre. An added bonus is that in this form there is less chance of manure run-off from fields.

Kleinheinz called the project a great example of the University in a private partnership to help address a need. It converts manure to green energy and provides an opportunity for students to learn.

“It’s a great, big piece of research and teaching equipment for us,” Wells said. “Students will be doing all kinds of experiments to maximize the energy produced.”

The multifaceted energy plant and facility will significantly enhance UWO student learning and community outreach opportunities. It will house a public education center operated by university students and faculty. It will introduce K-12 to the science and engineering involved in harnessing renewable energy. It will be available as a remote classroom and lab for UWO students taking microbiology, biology, environmental studies and chemistry.

“Through this one proposed facility and partnership, there is the potential for much good for our campus, region and state,” Wells said.

The cost of building the system has not been released but it would be borne by the university and the foundation. The plan would be to finance the project over a 10-year period, but annual proceeds from selling energy are anticipated exceed the amount needed for loan repayment, even in the first year. The excess money would be used for scholarships and programs, according to Alex Hummel, associate director of news and public information, integrated marketing ad communication for UWO.

Milk Source, which operates several large dairies in the state, had been talking about digesters for years and had been in discussions with several potential providers. The company knew an outside source would provide one at some point, said Bill Harke, director of public affairs for Milk Source.

“The UWO proposal was almost too good to believe. This is a marvelous idea, the best plan we’ve heard,” Harke said.

About a week ago, the foundation board of directors unanimously endorsed the proposal that would form a partnership with Rosendale Dairy and the renewable energy companies Viessmann Group and BIOFerm Energy Systems of Madison.

The proposed biodigester is not the first for UWO. Viessmann and BIOFerm collaborated with the UWO foundation and the university to build a dry fermentation anaerobic facility, dedicated in May and now in operation off Witzel Avenue. It uses grass clippings, plant refuse and campus food waste to produce electricity and garbage food particles. It supplies about 10 percent of the University’s electrical needs.

Engineering and business plans for the new biodigester will be reviewed in the coming months and construction could begin in spring, with a projected startup in 2013.

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