Farm digester progress in Pennsylvania

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is home to about 7,000 dairy farms with an average herd size of less than 100 cows. While nutrient and odor management are of great importance to these farms, their overall economic viability appears to be the primary factor driving installation of anaerobic digesters over the past few years. “Pennsylvania has 30 dairy digesters and about 5 swine digesters right now,” says John Frey, Executive Director of the Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE), a nonprofit initiated in 2004 by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to enhance the profitability of the dairy industry. “About 10 of those digesters have been installed since 2010, and about another dozen were installed between 2006 and 2009.”

Historically, adoption of anaerobic digestion technology by the state’s dairy and swine farmers was driven primarily by odor management, notes Jay Howes, Deputy Secretary for Consumer Protection, Regulatory Affairs, and Dairy Industry Relations at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA). “One of the first digesters in the state was installed by Harlen Keener, a swine and dairy farmer on the outskirts of Lancaster, in the late 1970s. I remember him pointing to the skyline of Lancaster and saying, ‘this digester is the price of me being in business in this location.’”

While passage of the country’s first Nutrient Management Act in 1993 was a contributing factor to digester development in Pennsylvania, availability of financing from the state as well as the federal government has been the key contributor to installing systems over the past decade. These include loans and tax credits from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) initiative, the stimulus dollars in the form of U.S. Treasury grants, and state financial assistance available through PennVest, the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA), Department of Environmental Protection and other entities. The financial support has made it possible for dairy and swine farms to build digesters.

“The CFA within the Department of Community Economic Development has grant funding and low interest loans available,” explains Frey. “The Board of the CFA has had favorable impressions of anaerobic digestion technology. It provides grants for up to 33 percent of capital costs up to a certain level, and about 33 percent cost coverage through low-interest financing. The CFA is funded through bond sales.”
Dairy Power Stakeholders Group

About two years ago, the CDE created the Pennsylvania Dairy Power Stakeholders group, which includes dairy producers with operating anaerobic digesters, and representatives from various state agencies, public utility companies, service providers and the Public Utility Commission. Facilitating implementation of on-farm biogas production to support the future profitability and viability of the state’s dairy industry and enhance its competitiveness is among the key points of agreement among stakeholders. Another key factor is use of digesters to control manure odors and enhance nutrient reduction, creating the ability for livestock operations to coexist with urban population centers.

“In addition to agreeing that AD plays a potential role in the future profitability of the state’s dairy industry, the group also agreed that the advancement and adoption of AD technology on dairy farms will require a commitment to the development and enhancement of a world-class Pennsylvania technical services and support infrastructure, explains Frey. “We also agreed that dairy-generated electrical power should be viewed as another locally produced Pennsylvania farm product and represents a potentially premium product for environmentally conscious markets.”

Identified barriers to adoption of AD by the state’s dairy industry include a lack of information and knowledge for dairy producers and advisors on the processes to plan, design, construct, implement and permit systems; need for capital costs to be subsidized by loans and grants to be economical; and lack of an ag-friendly permitting process for receiving off-farm substrates such as food waste. “A direct outcome of this group’s discussion was working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last year on a general permit for farm digesters to receive food waste and other energy-rich substrates,” says Howes (see sidebar). “From PDA’s standpoint, we would like to be able to facilitate solutions so we are not tripping over conflicting regulations. This is something that our department will continue to monitor and be of assistance. I think we will see more of that type of collaboration on rules and permits between state agencies and other stakeholders as the push continues to get food waste out of the landfill.”

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