Saturday, April 25, 2015

Carbon Pricing Helping Farmers Ease Methane Pollution

Leo Van Warmderdam surveys his dairy farm near Galt, Calif., from atop its covered manure lagoon. (Credit: John Upton) Click to Enlarge.
Leo Van Warmderdam pointed to a red shed housing a large generator on his family’s dairy farm as he loped over two acres of manure.  The thick black plastic stretching across the manure ballooned as he walked on it, inflated by methane building from beneath.  The cover seemed to be doing its job.  It didn’t smell much different above the lagoon than it did elsewhere in this livestock-dominated swath of the Central Valley, just south of Sacramento.

Beneath the sun-parched plastic, microbes were breaking down the manure from about 1,000 cows into methane, which was being piped to the generator and burned to produce electricity.

These systems are called biogas digesters, and they’re helping to protect the climate from methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  As the world’s appetite for meat and dairy has grown, agriculture has become a bigger cause of global warming than deforestation, and that’s mostly because of the methane released by livestock farming.

On Thursday, the Obama Administration laid out a 10-point plan for reducing climate pollution that focused on rural areas, including farms and forests.  Key among those 10 points was a plan to encourage more farmers to install biogas digesters, and to support 500 more biogas installations at farms during the next decade.
The initiatives should help reduce the more than 2 million tons of methane released by American livestock farming every year.  But 500 biogas digesters would be a drop in the proverbial bucket.

The EPA concluded in 2010 that such systems are “technically feasible” at more than 8,200 American dairy and swine farms, and that they could also be used at some poultry operations.  Yet fewer than 200 had been installed nationwide, with high costs found to be a primary reason for the tardy uptake.

Biogas digesters produce a useable and tradeable commodity — energy — but installations on smaller farms rarely produce enough of it to pay for themselves.  In California, a cap-and-trade system that charges polluters a fee for releasing carbon dioxide is helping to close the financial viability gap.

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