Turn­ing poop into power: Cal­i­for­nia dairies ap­peal for more cli­mate change money

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ADAM ASH­TON AND AN­DREW SHEELER aash­[email protected]

Joey Airoso last year hooked his dairy into a huge Cal­i­for­nia re­new­able en­ergy project, a net­work of farms that turns the gas leak­ing off ma­nure from 35,000 cows into a bio­fuel.

It wasn’t cheap. The to­tal project cost more than $30 mil­lion, but a grant from the state’s cap-and-trade pro­gram that’s meant to help dairies slash green­house gas emis­sions and com­ply with a global warm­ing law made Airoso’s de­ci­sion an eas­ier call.

“None of this stuff is free. It’s im­por­tant to sup­port the dairy farm­ers who are try­ing to be sus­tain­able,” the Tu­lare County dairy­man said.

So far, Cal­i­for­nia has steered at least $260 mil­lion in those grants to meth­ane di­gester projects like the one Airoso joined. The Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board projects they’ll re­move mil­lions of tons of green­house gas emis­sions from the at­mos­phere, and Gov. Gavin New­som is ask­ing law­mak­ers to put an­other $35 mil­lion into the dairy grants.

But this year, the sub­si­dies are meet­ing new op­po­si­tion from some of the state’s lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions. They ar­gue that Cal­i­for­nia-style large dairies are un­sus­tain­able even with meth­ane di­gesters be­cause the ma­chines can­not elim­i­nate all green­house gas emis­sions cows pro­duce, and be­cause the dairies have other dam­ag­ing im­pacts on wa­ter qual­ity.

They’ve lob­bied against New­som’s bud­get re­quest, and against a sep­a­rate bill that would give the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion more author­ity to give grants to dairies.

“It’s not even a Band-Aid fix,” said Re­becca Spec­tor, West Coast Di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for Food Safety. “You still have the prob­lem of, how are these farms go­ing to get rid of all the ma­nure pro­duced by these dairy cows?”

Cal­i­for­nia’s cap-and-trade pro­gram sets tar­gets for in­dus­tries to slash their green­house gas emis­sions over time or buy pol­lu­tion cred­its at state-run auc­tions if they can’t scale down their car­bon foot­print. The state uses rev­enue from the auc­tions to seed other green­house gas-re­duc­ing projects, like mass tran­sit and re­bates for elec­tric cars.

Dairies ac­count for more than half of the state’s meth­ane emis­sions through ma­nure and from cow burps and farts, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board. By 2030 dairies must cut meth­ane emis­sions by 40 per­cent to com­ply with a 2016 state law.

Dairy­men ar­gue they’ll strug­gle to hit the tar­get with meth­ane di­gesters, and that the projects are so suc­cess­ful they de­serve even more money from the state.

“It shouldn’t be a hard ask,” said Michael Boc­cadoro, a dairy in­dus­try lob­by­ist. “I can make a strong ar­gu­ment that this is the best project the state is in­vest­ing in right now.”


Cal­i­for­nia handed down its first cap-and-trade funded grants to sup­port dairy di­gesters in 2014. Those projects fea­ture a cap over a ma­nure pond that gath­ers meth­ane. A small power plant at each site burns the gas, fu­el­ing larger util­i­ties like the Sacra­mento Mu­nic­i­pal Util­ity Dis­trict.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s ad­min­is­tra­tion put $250 mil­lion from cap-and­trade rev­enue into the di­gesters since 2016, and most of the newer projects no longer hook into util­i­ties.

In­stead, they gather meth­ane from mul­ti­ple dairies, fun­nel the gas to a cen­tral plant and turn it into a com­pressed nat­u­ral gas that can run a power plant or fuel cars and trucks.

The newer plants cre­at­ing com­pressed nat­u­ral gas are potentiall­y prof­itable be­cause they’re el­i­gi­ble for two kinds of in­cen­tives, one from the state and the other from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to a De­cem­ber 2018 study by UC Davis agri­cul­ture pro­fes­sors Hyunok Lee and Daniel Sum­ner.

The state’s low-car­bon fuel stan­dard al­lows pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries to off­set their car­bon foot­print by buy­ing cred­its from pro­duc­ers of low-car­bon trans­porta­tion fu­els. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s re­new­able fuel stan­dard re­quires re­finer­ies to use a cer­tain amount of re­new­able fuel, such as ethanol, in the prod­ucts they de­liver to the mar­ket.

Those two in­cen­tives could gen­er­ate about $1.8 mil­lion a year for a farm, the pro­fes­sors wrote, cit­ing pro­jec­tions from the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board. That’s far more than the $149,000 a year the state as­sumes each farm can earn from com­mer­cial gas sales.

The risk dairies face is that a change in pol­icy could re­scind those in­cen­tives and cause them to turn off meth­ane di­gesters that tend to cost about $4.8 mil­lion to build.

They “could be prof­itable if you feel se­cure about how long these pro­grams are go­ing to last,” Sum­ner said.


All that money is one of the rea­sons that crit­ics of the grants say dairies don’t need the sub­si­dies.

The ad­vo­cacy group Lead­er­ship Coun­cil for Jus­tice and Ac­count­abil­ity pub­lished a 24-page pa­per in April built on its anal­y­sis of state sup­port for meth­ane di­gesters from the cap-and-trade pro­gram and a sep­a­rate pot of money man­aged by the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion.

The ad­vo­cacy group ar­gued that meth­ane di­gesters could give dairy­men an ex­tra in­cen­tive to in­crease the sizes of their herds be­cause more cows would make more ma­nure and more gas. That would un­der­mine the cap-and­trade pro­gram’s goals, they say, be­cause the cows would re­lease even more meth­ane when they burp and fart.

It con­tends the state is not pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to the dairies’ an­cil­lary wa­ter- and air-qual­ity im­pacts when it makes them el­i­gi­ble for cap-and­trade grants.

“We would much rather see in­cen­tives, mean­ing funds, go­ing to­ward help­ing farm­ers tran­si­tion to more sus­tain­able prac­tices,” said Spec­tor from the Cen­ter for Food Safety.


Cal­i­for­nia dairies have about 1.7 mil­lion milk­ing cows with the num­ber de­clin­ing slightly ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture. They pro­duce about 18.5 per­cent of the na­tion’s milk.

Sum­ner from UC Davis said many dairy fam­i­lies are hedg­ing their bets on Cal­i­for­nia, with rel­a­tives open­ing farms in other states with fewer reg­u­la­tions. He de­scribed dairy­men as wealthy, but over time, they might de­cide they can earn more money in an­other lo­ca­tion.

Boc­cadoro, the in­dus­try lob­by­ist, said dairies leav­ing the state would un­der­mine Cal­i­for­nia’s global warm­ing goals, too. The cows and their meth­ane would sim­ply move across state lines, and Cal­i­for­ni­ans would still buy cheese and milk, he said.

“The whole point of this is to get other peo­ple to fol­low our lead, but if our poli­cies just lead to dairies leav­ing here and go­ing else­where we’d be a laugh­ing­stock.”

The project that Airoso joined is on track to get big­ger. Maas En­ergy Works, one of the two com­pa­nies build­ing most of the state’s meth­ane di­gesters, has ap­plied for grants to add six more dairies to the plant. That would have the project turn­ing ma­nure from 50,000 milk­ing cows into com­pressed nat­u­ral gas, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

Airoso is happy with the project. He said it’s cap­tur­ing more gas than it was ex­pected to gather.

“We live in a state where peo­ple tend to want to pro­mote be­ing green and liv­ing a green life­style, but then it’s also im­por­tant for peo­ple to sup­port the prod­ucts that are pro­duced here,” Airoso. said.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

So far, Cal­i­for­nia has steered at least $260 mil­lion in grant money to meth­ane di­gester projects, most at Cen­tral Val­ley dairies.

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