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Ground broken for second manure digester

June 6, 2013 | 0 comments



Construction of Dane County’s second "cow-power" manure digester project has begun, and officials celebrated last week with a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Ziegler family’s dairy farm near Middleton.

The people who have been instrumental in the project took gold-colored pitchforks and turned over compost to commemorate the beginning of the project. Heavy machinery is already on site to begin the real work.

The digester is the second such project for Dane County. An earlier three-farm digester has been operating near Waunakee since early April 2011. The idea for both community-sponsored manure digesters came out of a study looking for ways to keep area lakes cleaner.

Phosphorus is a nutrient that gets most of the blame for turning Madison lakes green with algae. Several years ago the use of phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizers was banned in the county.

At last week’s ceremony Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said this new manure digester facility would produce enough electricity to power 2,500 homes, but would also use new technology that will reduce phosphorus even more than current technology.

The digester will process manure from the Ziegler farm, Hensen Brothers farm and Blue Star Dairy, operated by the Meinholz family. Manure from the Hensen and Meinholz farms will be trucked into the digester; Ziegler’s manure will be piped into the facility, which is being built on their farm.

Parisi said the location of the new digester is important. The farms are located near Pheasant Branch Creek, which feeds into Lake Mendota and their location provides a "double blast" of benefit for the county.

An environmental assessment from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) found that this second digester facility will keep twice the amount of phosphorus from entering the watershed when compared to the first digester in Waunakee due to its proximity to the Pheasant Branch Creek just 500 feet away.

The project has been a decade in the making, Parisi said, and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who promoted construction of the first community manure digester. He also credited the farm families who have persevered in the project.

Falk said it has always been important to keep Dane County’s dairy farmers in business and these community digesters provide one tool to make that happen. "There have been some real issues to slog through but no one else in the country has done this," she said of the community-sponsored digester projects.

"The fabulous farm families in Dane County are our future; they want to stay farming and we want to keep them farming."

One of the partners in the project is Gundersen Health Systems, a La Crosse health care provider that believes in "green" energy projects as a way to offset its own use of energy and as a way to improve the environment.

Bob Trine, a senior vice president with Gundersen, said this project has been in the making for a long time and it was one of the reasons he came back to work at the health care company.

This project alone will contribute 14 percent to Gundersen’s energy independence goal and it aligns with their mission to improve health in Wisconsin communities. "We are proud to partner with Dane County and the farm families on this important project.

"The region is rich in biogas and biomass and we are very excited to make a significant contribution to this pathfinder project. We will be producing electricity here in this calendar year," Trine added.

The new facility will be owned by Gundersen.

Trine said Gundersen had won a national award last year for an environmental project they did with a La Crosse County landfill – producing electricity from methane at the landfill.



State Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said the project is one that began with identifying a problem – too much phosphorus in area lakes – and then finding a solution.

"These farmers have been stewards of the land for years and this project is another signal that they are stepping forward to use these new technologies to do an even better job," Brancel added.

For every five cows, this facility will have enough raw material to produce energy for one home, he said.

Art Meinholz said the digester is important to help keep dairy farmers in Dane County, where they are an important economic driver. "This will help our three farms to manage our nutrients better and protect our lakes.

"This has been many years in the planning and there have been some bumps in the road, but we hope this will help the next generation to continue to dairy farm in this area," he added.

Dane County is providing Gundersen with $3.3 million in construction funding, money that came from the State of Wisconsin budget in 2010. The funding will cover a portion of the project’s cost.

As part of its design, the digester will have emergency manure storage capabilities for neighboring farms that may have storage difficulties during excessively long, wet, winters and springs.

Dane County has 400 dairy farms with about 50,000 dairy cows. Dairy farming is a $550-million a year industry in the county that supports 3,000 jobs, Parisi said.



Meinholz, whose family has been running Blue Star Dairy since 1946, said the project will allow him to better balance the nutrients on the farm.

He estimated that the three farms that are participating in the digester have a total of about 2,000 cows and all of their manure will go into the digester.

The Ziegler family will have storage on the digester site. The Hensen and Meinholz manure will be trucked in, he said, since they are a couple miles away from the site.

Meinholz said one of the misconceptions about the digester is that the participating farmers will be making money from it, which isn’t the case. Instead it’s a practical consideration.

"Everyone involved has reasons for wanting to be part of it," he said.

Young Matt Ziegler, one of five brothers who wants to be part of his parents’ and grandparents’ farm, said the project will allow them to utilize space on their farm that is now manure storage, replacing it with more housing for cattle, allowing for an expansion that will accommodate more family members.

The digester operation is expected to generate about 16 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power approximately 2,500 homes.

Because it will prevent the release of methane from untreated manure, the digester will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The DNR estimates that by trapping and using methane and displacing coal-fired electricity the digester will reduce emissions by 22,000 tons per year – equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from over 4,000 cars.

Middleton-based Purple Cow Organics is on board with the project to market the horticulture-grade compost that will result from the digester.

Parisi noted that the county plans to add game-changing manure treatment technology to the digester after construction that will remove 100 percent of the phosphorus that’s found in manure.

The county included $300,000 in this year’s budget to fund the innovative technology, which will convert liquid manure into clean water and more usable fertilizer products. A business plan is currently underway for the new technology.

The digester’s project developer will be US Biogas and Wisconsin-based construction management firm C.G. Schmidt will provide the design and construction for the digester and surrounding facilities.

Parisi said about 60 subcontractors and suppliers and 230 workers built the Waunakee digester. The second cow-power project is expected to create a similar number of jobs.



The electricity produced by this digester will be purchased by Madison Gas and Electric (MGE.)

Company Chairman, President and CEO Gary Wolter told Wisconsin State Farmer that there are certain cost profiles for conventional production of electricity and that the company is willing to pay a premium for the green, renewable energy produced by the new digester.

Who pays the premium and how the economics are made to work are fundamental questions in a project like this, he said, adding that the company is planning to pay two or three times the conventional cost of energy for the power produced at the digester.

"By paying a premium for electricity from this digester, MGE customers are helping clean one of our community’s most precious assets - our beautiful lakes and streams," he said.

Parisi said the county is looking ahead to digesters number three, four and five.

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