Got Manure? You’ve Got Renewable Energy

dairy-powerBy Ryan Young, Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting

There is no need to wait millions of years for deceased organisms to compress into fossil fuels to burn.  Forget about how the wind doesn’t always blow hard enough to move wind turbines, or that the sun doesn’t shine on solar panels at night.  A typical U.S. dairy cow is a renewable energy machine, producing 150 pounds of “fuel” in the form of manure…every single day.  There are no intermittency issues as there can be with wind and solar; as one dairy farmer said to me: “cows crap 24 hours a day.”

The U.S. dairy industry produces a staggering amount of manure every day, to the tune of 167 million gallons of manure from some 9.3 million cows.  That is enough manure to fill 250 Olympic size swimming pools every day of the year, generated by a population of cows that is more than three times the number of people in Chicago.  (This is definitely something to impress your friends with the next time you they ask you to pass the milk for their coffee.)

If not properly managed, this large amount of manure can present a big environmental problem.  For example, when stored manure decomposes in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic decomposition) it releases methane, a nasty greenhouse gas with more than 21 times the potency of carbon dioxide.  Due to the large volume of manure generated and the potency of methane, dairy manure is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire U.S. dairy industry supply chain (21%).  This dwarfs some of the usual suspects such as processing/manufacturing (7%), transportation/distribution (3%) and retail refrigeration (3%).


Fortunately, the U.S. dairy industry has recently committed to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.  Critical to reaching that goal is a piece of technology called an anaerobic digester, which has existed for years and is very effective at capturing the methane from manure.  A digester captures the gas as the manure breaks down, and this “biogas” can be used as a renewable fuel.  Many digesters burn the biogas in an internal combustion engine, generating twice the amount of electricity needed to run the dairy farm, enabling the farm to eliminate its electricity bill and also sell energy back to the grid.  In addition, during the combustion process the methane is destroyed, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere (hint: carbon credits).

Currently, there are approximately 116 operational digesters on U.S. dairy farms, producing over 300,000 MWh annually.  This sounds great, until you realize that there are more than 69,000 dairy farms in the U.S. So what’s preventing more dairy farms from having digesters?

This is precisely the question that the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy–a client of Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting–posed to the over 200 cross-industry participants of the recent Dairy Power New York Summit, Oct. 29-30 in Syracuse, NY.

The Summit was convened by the and was supported by several major organizations in the State, including NY Governor Patterson.   A range of experts, from New York dairy farmers, utilities, state and local government, academia, digester developers, and financiers attended this invitation-only event.  This was not a normal conference or seminar; the Summit used a highly participative large-group facilitation technique called Appreciative Inquiry.  The participants were challenged to envision a future in which digesters are on every dairy farm in NY, and then asked what types of projects would be necessary in order to achieve that vision.  The participants joined the project that they most wanted to support and the spent the remainder of the Summit in this group further defining the project and committing to work on them.

By the end of the Summit, the participants had aligned on a vision for digesters in NY and launched 17 initiatives to help achieve that vision.  The inspirational goal calls for 40% of all NY dairy manure going through anaerobic digestion by 2020.  By destroying methane that would otherwise go into the air, and also offsetting fossil fuel energy generation, this would reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 500,000 metric tons of carbon, equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road.  In addition, the energy produced from this effort could power 32,000 homes in NY. All of this while strengthening the economic vitality of New York’s dairy farms by helping them turn a waste product into a revenue stream.

There are certainly hurdles to overcome before this vision becomes a reality.  However, as was often said at the Dairy Power NY Summit, if this were easy it would already be done.  But the Summit serves as a call to action in NY and in other major dairy states.  Everyone now has a common understanding of the potential for renewable energy from dairy farms.  From this point forward, diverse groups such as dairy farmers and electric utilities in NY will be working together to overcome the hurdles and spur significant growth in anaerobic digesters.  So as our society continues to encourage turning natural inputs into sustainable, renewable energy, look for dairy farms and manure to help power the way…literally.  Please feel free to enjoy your next milk mustache with a smile on your face.


Ryan Young is a consultant for Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting.  Blu Skye is a team of business strategists with deep sustainability expertise who collaborate with the world’s biggest companies to achieve ambitious goals.  Blu Skye helps business leaders view sustainability for what it really is: the greatest business opportunity of our time.  Ryan is also the founder of Generational Economics, which seeks to help citizens of the world make decisions with future generations in mind.  You can contact him at

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