PG&E program collects natural gas from dairy manure on Central California farms and turns it into renewable energy

MERCED, Calif. (KGO) – At Vander Woude Dairy near Merced, Calif., thousands of cows are doing what cows do, giving milk, eating feed and creating methane gas. The greenhouse gas is a byproduct of the manure they leave behind.

But if that manure is getting more excitement than you normally think, it’s because of a mound a few hundred yards away. It’s part of an expanding methane capture project being developed by PG&E, California Energy Exchange and Maas Energy.

“Manure to energy, poo to energy, whatever you want to call it. It’s, you know, in this renewable energy program,” says Eileen Martinho of MAAS Energy.

The company helped develop a network of underground pipelines through samples of the Central Valley. The goal is to connect dairies in the region to energy providers like PG&E.

“Each dairy has a digester on their installation. And they send methane from their digester,” Martinho explains.

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The methane is collected under the digester mound covered with a giant tarpaulin and pumped through purifiers before being transformed into what is called RNG, or renewable natural gas.

Although there are literally a lot of raw materials underfoot, the challenge has been to find a cost-effective way to separate and transport the methane.

“So this is our first project and it was really difficult to go from the manure location to our pipelines. That’s why the partnership was so essential,” says Janisse Quiñones, senior vice president of gas engineering at PG&E.

Four dairies have gone live since December, with the aim of adding a dozen more.

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Planners hope to provide economic benefits to dairies and surrounding communities in the form of jobs.

Milkman Alex DeJager recently signed.

“It feels good. You know, the base of selling gas and producing power with what we do every day is just a plus for our business,” DeJager says.

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As the system develops, there is also hope for significant environmental benefits. Dairies are currently one of the largest producers of methane in California. Planners say capturing a percentage of these greenhouse gases would have a significant impact in the fight against climate change.

With the pollution trade-off of one car off the road for one year, for each cow in the program.

“As we build this whole project, around 80,000 cows will contribute to this project,” says Martinho.

And hopefully contribute far less greenhouse gases to the environment.

PG&E hopes that as the project grows, it could eventually contribute something on the order of 10 to 15 percent of renewable natural gas production.

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Ryan H. Bowman