Pennsylvania is too hilly and too fragmented to run manure pipelines, like they do in Ohio and Wisconsin, where some biodigester developers are turning cow manure into pipeline quality natural gas.

So a new project in Center Township, Indiana County, will truck the “fuel” from a few dozen farms, extract the methane, and return the cleansed cow poop as a solid for bedding and a liquid for fertilizer.

It promises an 80% reduction in odor, giving birth to the project’s internal motto: “Our s—t don’t stink.”

That’s enough for Wayne Frye, a dairy farmer near Greensburg who signed up most of his 800-cow herd for the effort.

They had him at smell reduction, he said: “They can keep the gas.”

The gas isn’t even the most valuable commodity in this new venture from French industrial gas giant Air Liquide. The money is in something more ephemeral: avoided greenhouse gas emissions.

Biogas produced from waste qualifies for carbon credits, which today sell for many times more than the gas itself.

About 80% of the revenue from the biodigester project in Indiana County will come from carbon credits, said Luca Sirugo, CEO of Texas-based engineering and construction firm Gruppo, which is building the facility for Air Liquide. The credits are sold to companies that are either required to offset their emissions or use them toward corporate environmental goals.

Image DescriptionA cow at HopeWay Farms in Westmoreland County
Tap or slick for larger image.

Biomethane is identical in composition to the gas pulled from shale, but it’s produced through the accelerated decomposition of organic matter — including food scraps or manure. Because of that, it is also referred to as renewable natural gas, which, in turn, can also qualify for renewable energy credits.

As with landfill-based waste-to-energy systems, anaerobic biodigesters are seeing substantial growth in the U.S.

“These projects are very profitable. Extremely, extremely profitable,” said Brian Kalt, director of renewable natural gas services with Warrendale-based Venture Engineering & Construction, who is not involved in the effort in Indiana County.

Venture has built biodigesters across the country, but none in Pennsylvania because, as Mr. Kalt said, the farms tend to be smaller and the terrain is an issue for pipelines.

But with a large buildout in recent years inspired by government subsidies for biomethane, all the low-hanging fruit — such as large farms on flat land — are already taken, he said.

A community-scale biodigester that trucks manure from smaller farms in the region is the logical next phase.

Manure contracts

The Indiana County project has been years in the making and began as many resource projects, such as coal or gas ventures, do — by laying out a map.

Image DescriptionTHE Foundation is poured for Air Liquide’s biodigester in Center Township, Indiana County in the shadow of the shuttered Homer City coal powerplant.
Tap or slick for larger image.

“We plotted all the dairy farms in Western Pennsylvania and we had an overlay for the (natural gas) pipeline map,” said Vince Mangini, a value chain coordinator with Food21, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit working for a sustainable food economy. He served as a matchmaker between Gruppo and local farmers and is now also a senior project developer for the engineering firm.

“Lucca said he needed 4,000 cows within a 20 miles radius. We just started drawing circles on a map.”

The area around Homer City turned out to be the bullseye, with available land next to a major gas pipeline at the Route 119 business park. State grants kicked in $2.25 million for infrastructure improvements.

Mr. Mangini and Mr. Sirugo fanned out across the dairy farm landscape of Indiana and Westmoreland counties. One farmer called another, who called another, and soon clusters had formed to make trucking more efficient. In the end, they signed up 13 farms, with 6,000 heads combined.

Matt Carr, who has 250 dairy cows in New Alexandria, was approached sometime last year.

“At first, we thought it was too good to be true,” he said. “Somebody wanted to pay us for cow manure.”

His farm has been in the family since 1957 and has several shallow gas wells. Mr. Carr wasn’t involved in negotiating those leases but imagined the process was similar to what he went through signing a contract for cow manure.

The calculation goes something like this: A 1,200-pound dairy, or “wet,” cow poops an average of 15 gallons a day. That 15 gallons can produce an average of 44,000 British thermal units of gas per day. Farmers get paid quarterly royalties based on their “wet cow equivalent” units.

Dairy cows are the most productive and reliable defecators.

“They drink a lot, they eat a lot, they poop a lot,” Mr. Sirugo said.

Each day, a truck will pick up manure from the farm and deposit it at the Air Liquide facility. There, it will be moved through four oxygen-starved tanks over the course of 34 days — enough to extract most of the methane and kill bacteria and viruses in the manure.

After a scrubbing, the gas will be fed into a Peoples Natural Gas pipeline and supplied to homes and businesses. The resulting solids and liquid will be trucked back to farms to put into barns and spread across fields.

Mr. Carr’s biggest concern was the mixing of manure from different farms.

“Some farmers are leery of it,” said Mr. Frye. “They’re afraid you’ll get some disease from one herd to another herd.”

In the end, the solids and liquids will be tested to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Mr. Frye already installed a separator at his farm that splits manure into solids and liquids. He did it to make bedding for cows, but it doesn’t kill bacteria and it doesn’t make energy.

Still, the separator costs him about $30,000 a year to operate. “It’s trouble. It’s broken down now and will cost another $14,000 to fix.”  But without it, buying sawdust for bedding would cost about the same amount -— $25,000 to $30,000, Mr. Frye said, so he hopes that when Air Liquide starts up the biodigester sometime next year, the burden will shift to someone else.

“If everybody holds true to their word, this is gonna to work out just fine,” he said.

Image DescriptionWayne Frye signed up his 800 cows at HopeWay Farms in Westmoreland County for the Air Liquide biodigester project.(Wayne Frye)

Biogas renaissance 

According to a fun history of biogas from PennState Extension — which the document traces back to Assyria in the 10th century B.C. — Pennsylvania has several of the oldest, continuously operating farm-based anaerobic digesters in the U.S.

Biodigester enthusiasm here came in waves. One accompanied the oil embargo and subsequent energy price spikes of the late 1970s. The first such facility was built in 1978 in Gettysburg.

Another surfaced in the early 2000s as suburban sprawl brought homes and noses closer to farmland, where manure is spread on fields as fertilizer. Complaints and odor limits followed. The deregulation of Pennsylvania’s electric industry also inspired some farms to secure their own electricity supply by burning biogas to power their operations.

The U.S. as a whole has a much less-developed biodigester industry than other countries. Europe leads the world in biogas production, according to the International Energy Agency.

But an obvious sign that the waste-to-energy tide is rising in America is BP’s $4.1 billion acquisition of Canonsburg-based Archaea Energy, said Venture’s Mr. Kalt.

Archaea produces natural gas from landfills. Last year, it had 46 operating facilities.

“And BP buys them?” Mr. Kalt said. “If they’re putting in that capital today, it indicates they know something we don’t.”

Air Liquide, which will operate the Indiana County digester, is another industry heavy-hitter that has been in the biomethane game for years and has signaled to investors in recent years a push to expand its presence in the waste to energy space.

Last year, it announced plans to build its largest biomethane production facility in Illinois. The project will draw methane from a nearby landfill.

Anya Litvak: 

First Published September 17, 2023, 5:30am