Cow Power Takes to the Highway

biogas1If the program for the World Ag Expo in Tulare had a centerfold, it might well be a gleaming red and silver tank truck, powered by pure Holstein hydrocarbons.

A Tulare County dairyman is using cow “emissions” to fuel two delivery trucks. Instead of a sleeper compartment, the cab of the truck holds six lightweight tanks for compressed bio-methane.

Western United Dairymen have produced a video about the project and its benefits to the environment. That’s an interesting twist because the dairy lobbying group and air quality regulators haven’t always seen eye to eye on the question of bovine gas.

Emissions from livestock have their own load of air quality issues, especially in Tulare County, where there are more cows than people. When cows burp or emit gas, it produces ozone, a key component of smog. Dairy owners have also wrangled with air regulators over emissions from some methane digesters that convert manure to electricity on dairies. For a refresher (poor word choice, perhaps), check out our recent radio/web series on methane.

But the California Air Resources Board stands behind the cow-power project (though perhaps not the manure spreaders–okay, old joke). In fact, CARB staked the dairy to a $600,000 grant, under legislation passed in June 2006 to encourage the introduction of alternative fuels into the California market. Hilarides Dairy and Cheese company used the money to help build a methane digester and figure out how to convert the diesel trucks.

How exactly does cow poop become something that can power a vehicle? It isn’t pretty, according to the group Sustainable Conservation, which put out a report on the subject. It goes something like this:

Manure is flushed from the cows’ stalls into a covered lagoon where bacteria convert the manure to biogas. The trapped gas is sent from the lagoon to a biogas upgrading system which removes impurities. Pressurized bio-methane is put into the truck’s fuel tank. The truck is then ready for the road.

The report estimates that cows could eventually power a million cars nationwide. But unless you live near a dairy farm or have your own personal cow to hook up to your fuel tank, don’t expect this will save you a trip to the gas station anytime soon.

Photo courtesy of Hilarides Dairy: The biogas upgrading system arrives by truck from Michigan (but transported with conventional diesel).

  • http://agroguru.org Daniel

    I agree this project might not power a million cars anytime soon, but reducing the carbon footprint of our food supply is of interest to both producers and consumers.

    Also, it’s nice to see a project that can generate enthusiasm among the agriculture and regulatory communities. Projects like this one will help fuel, pun intended, innovation.