They aim to clean the gas produced by cow manure, put it in trucks, inject it into an interstate pipeline, and sell the environmental benefits across the country in California.
Some are skeptical.
“There are a bunch of headhunters out there making promises that not all of them can keep,” said New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, who is also considering a renewable gas project at his dairy farm.
States with ambitious environmental agendas are trying to find a way to quickly reduce emissions, including those targeted by these projects, even as federal action languishes.
California’s policy creating incentives for low-carbon fuels is being implemented in Washington and Oregon, expanding the market for gas from landfills and manure, and driving a national boom in the number of dairy farms installing equipment to capture, clean and sell manure gas. .
While other states are also seeing renewable gas exported to the California market, few have climate goals as ambitious as New York’s.
New York’s Climate Law Requires Emission Reductions compared to 1990 levels by 85% by 2050.
And New York’s transition to a low-carbon economy requires eliminating the burning of virtually all gas, according to most models.
Manure stored in the “lagoons” of large dairies releases significant amounts of methane — a particularly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming — as the fermentation started in a cow’s stomach continues. Rotting waste in landfills also releases significant amounts of methane, forcing some facilities to burn off the excess.
But, as New York is still working out its plan to meet its emissions goal, officials have yet to develop a cohesive policy to tackle these sources.
Some conservationists want this gas captured and turned into fuel for transportation or electricity, with incentives put in place by the state.
But many of them also warn that burning cleaned methane gas still emits planet-warming carbon dioxide and health-damaging pollutants. The incentives could extend the life of leaky pipelines and support the continued use of fossil gas, they said.
California and New York, sharing goals and manure
California has its own ambitious climate goals and is more advanced in some areas on policies to reduce emissions than New York.
In California, the state’s low-carbon fuel standard rewards transportation fuels with lower “carbon intensity” scores – and not even renewable electricity with scores as low as methane captured in cow droppings and landfills.
So here’s the coast-to-coast incentive: California’s incentive – and New York’s lack of policy – has led to a largely unexamined change that may have a perverse effect on gas emissions Greenhouse effect.
“The longer the supply chain, the more methane emissions are going to occur,” said Tristan Brown, associate professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “If you really want to maximize the benefits of anaerobic digestion, you want to use biogas onsite.”
Some New York dairies that received state support to install anaerobic digesters to capture manure gas and burn it for electricity are now partnering with companies to clean up and sell the gas (or just its environmental benefits) out of state, primarily in California.
The Bluebird Renewable Energy Project involves the construction of approximately five miles of new pipeline to join two upstate New York dairy farms in the production of pipeline-grade renewable natural gas.
But while the goal is to reduce emissions, dairies are already capturing planet-warming manure gases and burning them to generate electricity. Environmental groups have raised concerns about the climate benefits of trucking the gas to a pipeline instead.
New York’s energy and environmental agencies have quietly licensed and financially backed several projects dotting the bucolic upstate landscape.
Creating renewable natural gas” through anaerobic digestion in landfills and manure storage is one way to reduce the methane generated at these sources, as robust assessments of available technologies and practices to determine optimal emission reduction strategies continue. to move forward,” said Haley Viccaro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC.
There is no evidence that the state has applied increased scrutiny, despite developers’ plans to export the environmental benefits they claim make the projects climate law compliant. Some have also indicated that they plan to sell into the market supporting the federal renewable fuel standard.
“For New York to separately claim an environmental benefit is simply double counting,” said Josh Berman, senior attorney for the Sierra Club.
Meanwhile, owners of California dairy and landfill projects are watching the influx of out-of-state entrants warily. California fuel suppliers only need to purchase a certain number of credits to meet the standard, and a drop in credit prices as demand has fallen means projects could be less profitable.
Out-of-state projects have a slightly higher carbon footprint for transporting fuel to California, but are also generally less expensive. That worries dairy farms in the state, which have about 80 digesters across California and another 120 in development.
“There are a lot of projects coming from out of state,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of the Dairy Cares Group, which represents California dairies.
“To the extent that it moves projects to California, it’s going to be problematic for me and a lot of other people.”
Several projects have already been approved by the New York’s DEC, staff citing environmental benefits despite their out-of-state destination. Three farms in western New York are working with a Canadian company that has secured $300,000 in grants from the New York Power Authority.
The state has also leveraged its finance powerhouse, the New York Green Bank, to support projects that plan to export profits.
Chautauqua County, which has a population of about 120,000 and sits on the shore of Lake Erie southeast of Buffalo, already has a gas-to-electric plant at its Jamestown landfill. This plant ensured that waste gases could be captured, burned and turned into energy.
But with low electricity prices, the county has turned to a private company that promises to turn the gas into pipeline-grade methane and truck it elsewhere for sale. The project developer, a subsidiary of CGE Ventures LLC, secured state assistance in the form of a $17.4 million construction loan from Green Bank in January 2021.
“You have refineries and different entities that are required to recoup some of these credits,” CGE spokesman Dennis Holbrook said. “There are also credits for electricity production, but at the moment they are not as lucrative.”
One landfill, Seneca Meadows in Waterloo, central New York, is tentatively certified to sell its upgraded gas in the California low-carbon fuel market, documents show. The Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority is also inviting proposals from developers to use its landfill gas.
Lack of incentives
New York’s climate law of 2019 does not consider electricity produced with biogas to be renewable. Thus, on-farm and landfill digesters are no longer eligible for new subsidies.
Low payments for electricity generated at sites are one of the factors driving the rush to add value to biogas produced at dairy farms and landfills in New York. Cook said utility costs are still high. Running the generator to heat the digester requires someone with mechanical skills on call 24/7.
“It took me a while to get to grips with the idea of renewable natural gas and getting it into the pipeline,” said Bill Cook, who founded Aurora Ridge Dairy in 1984. The dairy, with 2,400 cows , is one of two working with DTE. Energy on the Bluebird project. The project is located north of Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region.
Project Bluebird stands to receive the most public and potentially thorough verification of its climate credibility, as it requires approval from the New York Public Service Commission.
Fisher’s dairy farm has about 3,000 cows in Madrid, St. Lawrence County near the Canadian border.
He currently separates the fibers from the manure to use as bedding, then stores the remaining liquid in lagoons and spreads it on crop fields to fertilize them. They considered a digester nearly a decade ago, but the electricity revenue was not enough.
He said he is now considering a partnership to capture the biogas and upgrade it – and the prospect is financially and environmentally attractive.
“Dairy margins are really tight, so if we can make some money from a by-product, that’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s the right thing. If we can keep methane out of the atmosphere, that’s good.
Debra Kahn contributed to this report.