Cow Power in California

Historically, cow manure, methane, and methane digesters have not been words that conjure up images of innovation and renewable energy. But that is changing.

On dairy farms across the United States, cow manure is a renewable and abundant resource. In California, methane from dairy farms accounts for up to 5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable Conservation, an organization whose mission is to promote environmental solutions that make economic sense, has helped clear the path for methane digesters on California dairy farms. This organization has also made methane digesters more economically attractive. With support from the Packard Foundation, Sustainable Conservation has been helping farmers develop and test a variety of innovative sustainable practices.

By installing methane digesters on their farms, farmers can harness the naturally occurring methane from manure and convert it into electricity and fuel for cars and trucks. Electricity generated from methane digesters on dairy farms can be used onsite or sold to a utility (depending on state regulations). In the process, farmers prevent methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, from reaching the atmosphere. If methane digesters were installed on most California dairies, the climate impact would be similar to taking more than one million cars off the road—about 3 percent of the state’s total.

Captured gases from methane digesters can even be refined to produce vehicle fuel, known as biomethane. Sustainable Conservation calls this “cow power.” The manure on California’s dairies could produce enough biomethane to “cow power” over 100,000 vehicles. Biogas is already used extensively in Sweden and elsewhere, and some experts suggest that it could be a major source of renewable energy in the U.S.

Innovations, such as methane digesters, that are economically and environmentally beneficial are also essential in moving us closer to our climate goals. Sustainable Conservation and its farmer partners are making great headway on the United States’ path to a renewable energy future.