Despite a loud outcry from California’s agribusiness sector, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law last fall that aims to cut methane emissions from dairy operations. While some studies have suggested that the livestock industry is actually more efficient and less polluting than in generations past, estimates often suggest that half of the Golden State’s methane emissions can be traced to the dairy and beef sectors. Now that California legislators have extended the state’s cap-and-trade program to 2030, supporters of the program say now is an opportune time for the dairy sector to explore clean technology options in order to reduce its carbon footprint. Funding for more sustainable and energy-efficient solutions will continue to be available to the state’s farmers if they can make the case that they can reduce emissions.
One Northern California dairy farmer says he’s been working on one such option for several years, and has succeeded in making his dairy operations carbon positive.
Albert Straus, who’s often heralded as a first mover in organic dairy and sustainable agriculture, has revealed what he says is the world’s first first full-scale electric truck – powered by cow manure. Straus, whose namesake dairy has become a fan favorite for its organic milk, ice cream and yogurt, said he spent several years working with a mechanic to retrofit a truck used within Straus Family Creamery’s operations. The 33,000-pound International Harvester truck is no longer running on diesel; instead, electric power that is generated from an onsite methane gas digester measures, mixes and hauls feed for the farm’s 270 cows. While Straus’ cows are feeding, they are also dropping plenty of manure, which the dairy farm’s workers collect by tractor, dump into a holding pond. From there, the anaerobic digestion process starts and eventually, renewable power can recharge the truck’s battery.
The big question is, could Straus’ contraption actually scale? The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has said the goal to reduce the state’s emissions 40 percent by 2030 could be largely met by converting cow manure into renewable power.
For Straus, the overall benefit has been to make his dairy farm carbon positive while weaning its way off of fossil fuels. The company estimates that it has prevented the release of 18 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. As Straus has been an early adopter of clean technology, he received no financial incentives from the federal or state governments. The cost of the truck’s retrofit was approximately $130,000, and he expects his return on investment to pay off anywhere from eight to 13 years. By going electric, Straus concluded he saves about $7,200 in diesel purchases, as well as about $3,000 in eliminated maintenance costs. New diesel trucks such as the one Straus runs costs anywhere from $65,000 to $100,000; replacing the diesel motor with an electric one costs approximately $30,000; he suggests that eventually replacing that diesel motor costs about $20,000 every 10 years.
The question for farmers, and the state of California, is if such an ROI is acceptable to dairy operators. California would also have to decide if it should also offer tax credits or grants to motivate farmers to make such a switch and decrease the number of years it takes to achieve a competitive ROI.
Straus has also inferred that his retrofitted truck could also shake up the emerging electric semi-truck industry. Start-ups, along with electric vehicles juggernaut Tesla, are striving to score a head start within this sector. But Straus insists that he is the first to use a full-scale electric feed truck into use, two months before Tesla’s electric semi-truck will reportedly make its debut.
“My electric feed truck is not only a practical tool for my farm. It is also a symbol of the resourcefulness we need to fight climate change, which threatens our business and the future of American farming,” said Straus in a public statement.
In addition to the manure biogester, which has been generating power for over a decade, Straus and his dairy have tackled other sustainability initiatives. Partnering with the Marin Carbon Project, Straus’ 500-acre spread is California’s first dairy to develop a 20-year carbon farming plan with the goal to sequester 2,000 metric tons of carbon annually. Straus says he also has plans to reveal an all-electric truck to transport his company’s products to local markets in the Bay Area.
Image credit: Straus Family Creamery