When it comes to finding cleaner greener sources of electrical power, we’re going to have to start thinking out of the box a bit if we want to reduce carbon emissions and increase efficiency. Coal, solar, wind and hydro may be the most common sources to power your home, but now you can now add cow poop to the list as well. And no we’re not kidding…

Cows produce the greenhouse gas methane through their belches, farts and poop. The very thought may ellicit giggles, but methane represents a serious threat for global warming — it’s a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. When you have thousands of cows packed into very small areas on industrial dairy farms (such as in California), you are looking at a serious methane problem. Naturally it makes sense then to try to kill two birds with one stone and turn the methane gas into something useful (like a source of energy) while breaking it down.

While they haven’t yet produced a specific module for bovine emissions, Velocys, a company in Ohio, has come up with a method to refine the methane gas that is the byproduct of a number of industrial processes. The methane is moved through microchannels, mixed with carbon and then frozen, allowing the nitrogen that is in the compound to pass through, thus purifying the gas, so that it may be used as a power source.

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Meanwhile, PG&E, the California utility company that wants to get you to power your house with your car, recently signed an agreement with BioEnery Solutions that will allow them to provide enough natural gas which they plan to get from cow poop for about 50,000 homes. BioEnergy is a company that retrofits a lagoon of cow manure, in order to to trap the methane that is being produced as it manure decomposes. The methane is then cleaned so that it can be used to generate electricity. Their first project for this partnership will be installed on Vintage Dairy, in Fresno County.

Methane digesters aren’t a new technology, but they are starting to be applied more widely. In 2004, Albert Strauss installed a similar system on his farm in Marin County, and started to sell it back to PG&E. It was the first of 14 proposed systems that were being tested in the hopes that it could become another outlet for power generation. It’s a technology that has been in existence for years, though it was to costly to install it. Here’s hoping that the new developments in technology and and PG&E’s deal with BioEnergy is another step in the right direction.

+ How Stinky Gas can Save the Earth @ Wired
+ Pacific Gas and Electric Company
+ 270 cows generating electricity for farm @ SF Chronicle

Each cow at Straus Farms on Tomales Bay produce about 120 pounds of manure each day. Chronicle photo by John O’Hara