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Vermont Launches 'Cow Power' System 400

odyaws writes "Central Vermont Public Service has launched Cow Power, a system by which power users can opt to buy 25, 50, or 100% of their electricity from dairy farms that run generators on methane obtained from cow manure. Cow Power costs only 4 cents/kWh more than market price, so a household like mine would only pay $5-6/month more at 100% usage. The big question now is whether Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream will use power generated from the manure of cows treated with Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone."
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Vermont Launches 'Cow Power' System

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  • by MustardMan ( 52102 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:18AM (#15695866)
    I don't get what you're saying. How is it a scam? They pay the farmer for the power, plus a little bonus as an incentive to use otherwise wasted gas to provide an environmentally friendly source of power. I personally think it's an awesome idea - I wish there were more incentive for people to use and produce alternative power sources.
  • Bovine Biofuel (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Onuma ( 947856 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:25AM (#15695894)
    This is really a mooving story.

    But seriously, it's about time people started doing things like this en masse. We waste a shitload of resources we could otherwise make use of on a daily basis (no pun intended). If this catches on and becomes more widespread across the dairy sections of the country, and perhaps the world, people will quickly start looking at how to use other resources to their advantage - how about the methane from other farm animals, or perhaps human waste passing through sewers? Admittedly most will seek profit from it, but it's really what's happening that counts, not why in this circumstance.
  • by Locutus ( 9039 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:28AM (#15695898)
    It looks like the plan was to NOT letting this get too popular. The fact that customers have to pay more for this power AND the plan is to pay the farmers more than the current rate is the exact technique I'd use if I didn't want too many customers picking this option. Who's going to make the choice to pay about 30% more for energy?

    This looks like a scam to make this look like the "green" thing to do when in fact, the result is going to make very little difference in how their energy is produced. Sounds just like Bush's hydrogen vs hybrid strategies.

  • Re:Global Warming? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RsG ( 809189 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:31AM (#15695909)
    It's also worth mentioning that methane is a greenhouse gas. It's actually worse than Co2 in this regard, though far less common and also less stable.

    Since decomposing cow manure is going to emit methane whether we tap it for power or not (as will the cows themselves) it stands to reason that letting the methane go to waste is more of a greenhouse gas contributor than burning it. After all, the Co2 we release from combusting it will be resorbed by the plants the cows themselves eat, whereas the methane will not. And if we don't burn the stuff, it'll just end up in the atmosphere anyways.
  • Re:New math? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:36AM (#15695926)
    I use about 1500 kwh per month.
    WHAT THE FUCK? Where I live 4000KWh per year is a lot if you live alone.

    Dude, is it common over there to be such a power hog? Geez.
  • Dirty Fuel? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by uarch ( 637449 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:41AM (#15695951)
    I generally have better things to do than read up about burning cow poo but I'm curious about one thing...

    I'm assuming this is marketed towards people who want some sort of "green energy" powering their homes. Is this really a clean(er) fuel source?

    Sure, burning your favorite fossil fuel on a large scale isn't exactly clean. It is however heavily regulated and uses countless filters & scrubbers to clean up most of the nasty by-products. I'd be tempted to believe that a random milk farmer burning a few tons of cow manure in the back yard would be worse for the environment.
  • by patio11 ( 857072 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @12:50AM (#15695968)
    ... there is no way you can actually draw power specifically from the farm. Electricity flows into The Grid, it flows out of The Grid, but once its on the Grid it doesn't care whether its coal, nuclear, cow flatulence, whatever -- there are no special ways to flavor an electrical charge. So what you're really doing is making a donation to the Cow Power farm to put a little juice back onto the grid... when they get paid already for doing that (you can, too: most states will let you bill the electric company if you use negative amounts, for example if you install a home solar system).

    If you really have your knickers in a twist about global warming take the money you were going to spend on donations to Cow Power and use it on insulation. You'll reduce your heating/cooling costs and decrease your own personal energy consumption, which will have a bigger environmental impact (measured in units of "infintessimally small", of course) than just changing x% of your energy budget from fossil fuels to marginally cleaner methane.
  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @01:01AM (#15696000)
    I have a commemorative "Vermont's Swinest" Ben and Jerry's T-shirt (complete with holstein styled pigs), they made them when they started a deal to supply a local pig farm (I believe near the Waterbury plant) with milk waste.
    The milk waste would be fed to the pigs along with the ususal feed, I don't recall where the pig waste / methane was headed.
    IIRC The first three pigs, by contract, were to be named "Ben", "Jerry" and "Ed" in honor of Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield and Ed Stanek - the Vermont EPA official who brokered the deal.
    When I worked on the old NSF Student Originated Studies program, one of the 1980 projects out of Iowa was to use manure methane to fire a still, ferment leftover corn waste into alcohol, feed the leftovers from the fermentation back into the pig feed, and use the alcohol in the machinery. Decent efficiencies in the pilot, but a hard sell to the farmers, as they needed smaller farms to go in together to get the delta-t they needed for peak efficiency, and it smacked of big entities twisting little family farm arms. In fact despite the NSF badge, it was just a bunch of undergrads, but still no sale.
  • by Alfred, Lord Tennyso ( 975342 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @01:10AM (#15696015)
    It's true: the electrons are fungible. You're getting plain old electricity from the grid, and paying a premium which goes (more or less) to the cow people.

    But the cow people won't produce it for the rates the electric company is willing to pay them. It's more expensive to produce a watt-hour of juice from cow-fart than it is from coal. Without the subsidy they're paid based on the fossil-fuel rates, and they lose money. This is a way for people to say, economically, "Non-fossil fuel power is more important to us than other uses of our money."

    In the limit, enough people being willing to pay for it could reduce the amount of coal burned and replace it with methane-burning, which is marginally better for the environment. How much better, as you point out, is entirely debatable, especially relative to other energy-conserving uses of the money. Nonetheless the fact that power is fungible does not alter the fact that people subsidizing the cow-power reduces fossil fuel consumption.

    (Or, more likely, reduces coal demand, lowering the price of conventionally-produced power, thus convincing people to leave the lights on all night. Or perhaps putting thousands of coal miners out of work. Or other horrible knock-on effects.)
  • Re:Dirty Fuel? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @01:15AM (#15696030)
    A very late response but... they are not burning the manure. It just sits there releasing methane all day into the air, further polluting the world. Capturing and burning the methane actually helps the situation by both providing power as well as keeping that nasty gas out of the atmosphere.
  • I really have to put in a plug for hemp (biomass). I'll not insult you with my IIRC facts, since I can so easily insult you with a quick google search for methane hemp [google.com]. I'll tell you what I've personally seen though, a field of 7 foot Canadian Hemp [google.com] (on the road to Blenheim from Rondeau Provincial Park [rondeauprovincialpark.ca]) growing so thickly you couldn't force yourself 6 inches into them. All long stems just perfect for industrial use [hemptrade.ca] and not a damn thing even close to smokable. Now on with the mini cut and paste, see "more" links for the rest.

    more [petitiononline.com] This one has a tons of facts covering replacing various industrial materials, historical uses, etc.
    * Farming 6% of the continental U.S. acreage with biomass crops (Hemp) would provide all of America's Energy needs.
    * Biomass can be converted into methane, methanol, or gasoline (which could eliminate our ties with the Middle East) at a cost comparable to petroleum and hemp is much better for the environment.
    * Hemp fuel burns clean. Petroleum causes acid rain due to sulfur pollution.
    * One acre of hemp can produce as much usable fiber as 4 acres of trees or two acres of cotton.
    * Trees cut down take 50-500 years to grow, while hemp can be cultivated in as little as 100 days and can yield 4 times more paper over a 20 year period.

    more [thehempfactory.com] Much shorter page but some others on the site are good reading.
    There are many interesting facts about hemp such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt painting on hemp canvasses, and also painting with hemp paints. Benjamin Franklin used hemp in the first paper mill, and Henry Ford thought methane, not gasoline, should be used to fuel cars. Biomass can be converted to methane (ethanol) at a fraction of the costs of oil, coal, or nuclear energy. (Imagine world politics if oil was off the table?) Wretchedly, the world swathed its destructive path, cutting down trees for paper, when hemp could have been harvested every three or four months, and, by using petro-chemicals instead of methane, at untold costs to our planet.
    Jonah HEX
  • by rjoseph ( 159458 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @02:26AM (#15696180) Homepage
    Vermont is one of the poorer states in the nation, where a large percentage of the population has serious trouble during the winter heating their homes. But at the same time, Vermont has dairy farms every where you look, it's one of the dominant traits of the landscape. Might as well use what you've got!

    Also, kudos to the people who thought to start this program in the summer, give it time to work out all the kinks. I've always admired Vermont for their forward-looking thinking, after all the yeller Howard Dean was their gov'na for long time (and despite his unfortaunte public persona, he's got great ideas too).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @02:41AM (#15696219)
    lol, i read your post and pictured Matrix-like plantation, with cows hooked up to the system to collect their farts...

    great. now gotta clean pepsi off the monitor :(
  • Re:Global Warming? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DrSkwid ( 118965 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @02:42AM (#15696221) Homepage Journal
    Here's an idea

    Instead of growing food to feed the cows and having methane producing manure to contend with, we eat the food and not the cows !!

    Meat production (especially from cows) is a crazily inefficient way to feed ourselves and at 50x the water consumption of potatoes.

  • by RsG ( 809189 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @03:16AM (#15696286)
    The market tends to be a reactive, rather than proactive, solution. That makes it ideal for short term adaptation and blind effeciency, but terrible for problems that are urgent and require long term investment - and this is the latter.

    What we need to do now is mostly R&D and prototype work. When and if those pan out, then the free market takes over; even a less than totally cheap solution can be competative if it has advantages otehr than price, and "green" marketing is exactly the sort of thing that can make up for the difference in price.

    However, as is usually the case, the groundwork can't wait for the free market to take an interest. We won't get alternative fuels without someone doing research into possible sources and people building prototypes that might or might not work. There's no gain in that if you're a for-profit corporation. Money takes the path of least resistance; trying to get it to flow somewhere that's not conductive to profit is like trying to get a lightling strike on a street level object in manhattan.
  • by vtcodger ( 957785 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @03:24AM (#15696306)
    ***That, and the removal of potentially massive ammounts of manure from our agricultural system doesn't sound like a sound investment in a sustainable agriculture either. But that's a consideration further down the path of long-term sustainability, and a fairly minor one in the current scope.***

    The manure isn't removed from the agricultural system. The stuff is piled -- mostly over the Winter because the cows spend most of their time in the fields when the weather isn't too awful. It is spread on the fields in Spring. The stored manure generates methane whether the methane is burned for electrical generation or not.

    Nothing wrong with this idea, but if you ask me, what Vermont really needs to stabilize rates and reduce carbon emissions is two more nuclear power plants. The chances of 'environmentalists' embracing relatively non-polluting nuclear power appear to be close to zero. The panacea d'jour seems to be gargantuan windmills in someone else's backyard.

  • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @03:58AM (#15696367)
    Actually, nuclear is a good match for vehicles.

    If you read US Patent # 4,835,433, you'll see that a device about the size of a keg of beer will crank out about 7500 W for 29.1 years, if you put a small amount of Strontium-90 in it (one gram - about 2mm of 16 gauge wire worth of material). Since Strontium-90 is generally considered nuclear waste these days, it's very easy to "mine" it out of our current waste dumps. If you want something smaller, then something the size of a "D" battery will crank 75 W for the same amount of time.

    Even if you don't want to carry it around with you (it emits only alpha and beta particles, not gamma, so it doesn't actually require heavy lead shielding), you can use the electricity generated to generate fuel for use in fuel cells, if you'd rather carry around something combustible with you, instead of a keg of beer with neck-bolts.

    What really annoying about the whole nuclear fear in the U.S. is that it's really a very green source of energy. You get more radiation released into the atmosphere from a coal-fired plant, not to mention the sludge for your lungs to filter ut of the air. If the U.S. would follow the lead of France and Japan, and build breeder reactors, and did fuel cycling like Japan does, we could stop digging for more fuel (it'd be generated as a by product of the reactor running), and it'd never be in a form where it could be used to build a nuclear weapon.

    -- Terry
  • by kamochan ( 883582 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @07:30AM (#15696837)

    Average American person sucks up over 700 kWh/month. Traditional successfull 'geek' household (decent AC, two-car heated garage, freezer/fridge, range/microwave, CCTV, plasma in the basement, gadgets, 24/7 computers, VAX cluster (winter heating), wireless, hot tub) will eat up 10,000 kWh easily.

    Just out of curiosity, I checked my last electricity bill. I run a fairly successful 'geek' household (no AC but in winters we get down to -22F so some heating is involved; no garage either, and I have a projector instead of plasma, but otherwise pretty much what you describe) and I seem to consume about 4 kWh per year. And I drive a nice, roomy Korean car which gets 24 mpg.

    I don't doubt your estimates about the average Americans; I was just curious about it. Since we have cold winters, our building code requires considerable insulation and similar considerations (which of course jack up the cost of housing). I remodeled my apartment completely 4 years back and installed low energy versions of all household devices. I just traded my car down to one size smaller, because the top-of-the-line model a) was really really gas-hungry and b) it was a bitch to maneuver downtown Helsinki.

    As I traded my car down, I also began to use fuel, which has 5% - the maximum allowed by law here - of alcohol in it. No modifications needed, but it's about 17 euro-cents per gallon more expensive than the lowest grade 95-octane. Which just hit 3.7 euros (= 4.7 US$) per gallon (so the bio-version is 3.87 euros per gallon)!

    The points I'm meandering towards are thus: 1) it's quite possible, without much trouble or much investment at all, to decrease your yearly power consumption by a few kWh (or, "Americans seem to use twice what they'd need to for their lifestyle" ;-). And 2), myself, and most people here I know, would quite probably go for cow-dung/whatnot-greenish electricity if it was no more than about 5% more expensive than coal/nuclear originated. More than that would probably exceed our convenience level (none of the referred to people are environmentalists, just somewhat environmentally aware consumers).

  • by JDevers ( 83155 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @08:16AM (#15697030)
    Because, after all, gasoline and oil don't cause any sorts of medical problems when burned in incredibly large quantities non-stop for 75+ years straight.

    A well built reactor could have FAR more than adequate shielding to prevent escape of either the beta radiation or the Sr90 itself (where the bone cancer comes in...it gets absorbed as Ca and then is an internal and localized beta emitter). Hyping up the danger of this while ignoring the danger of 10-40 gallons of explosive liquid in every car on Earth, which has to be refueled CONSTANTLY, is crazy. These generators would EASILY last longer than virtually any car. Electric motors are at a pretty close to perfection state, combine it with a long term source of power like this and you have cars which drive for all but free.

    Don't forget that this is a source of fuel which we are already MAKING in abundance as a by-product of another industry.
  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @09:13AM (#15697291) Journal
    New Belgium brewing http://www.newbelgium.com/sustainability.php [newbelgium.com] not only uses wind turbines, but also harvests methane from their waste water used in brewing. Between the 2, they claim to be fully sustainable in energy, using zero fossil fuels.
  • by shummer_mc ( 903125 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @10:40AM (#15697932)
    I read an article about a family who installed enough solar energy panels to cover their yearly costs... or so they thought.

    The math was simple, they added up their kwh and sized their system accordingly. Winters would be balanced by summers, etc. During the summer they'd build a credit with the power co. and during the winter they'd consume the credit. Their mistake was assuming that the power company would buy the power at the same price at which they sold it. The power company actually purchased at about 50% of the charge rate for the power. So, this family (after a good effort to live 'green') ended up with a power bill anyway.

    This story is interesting because they're taking methane (which is 'free' as in 'sunk cost') processing it (probably with gov't subsidy) and charging the customer more for it.

    I love the idea. It's efficient, and useful. However, I hate that the power co. is charging marginally more for the 'BS energy' (which is truly BS because the energy would be produced regardless of consumption).
  • by Azar ( 56604 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @10:47AM (#15697990) Homepage
    Canada supplies a fair amount (for a single country), but by no means the "majority". According to 2002 figures, Canada supplies approximately 15% of the oil imported into the U.S (3rd largest importer behind Saudi Arabi at 16.9% and Mexico at 15.1%).

    Recent figures (April 2006) show Canada as the largest supplier for that month at a whopping 17.4%, followed by Mexico at 16.3%, and Saudi Arabia at 16.1%. Nearly half (49.4%) of our oil comes from OPEC countries. And even a non-OPEC country is not guaranteed to be stable or even friendly to the US. Also, when you buy oil from Canada there is no guarantee that it's actually Canadian oil. Some of it might have originated in Iran, Qatar, Venezuela, etc. A funny thing that "trade".

    For the April 2006 figures, see here (PDF warning):
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/data_ publications/petroleum_supply_monthly/current/pdf/ table37.pdf [doe.gov]
  • Wind power (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mknewman ( 557587 ) * on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @11:26AM (#15698330)
    I recently changed my plan here in Houston, Tx from Reliant Energy's standard plan to their 100% wind power. The difference in cost was negligable, maybe $5/month, and now my 2000-3000kw/h per month are totally green. They replace at least 100% of the energy I use with wind power. I figure this is about 2/3 of my total carbon footprint I have reduced in one swoop, and I have cast my vote for clean energy.
  • by spaceman375 ( 780812 ) on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @11:54AM (#15698607)
    Most nuclear power proponents are missing one important fact: We use concrete and lead to "shield" the plants. There actually is no such thing as a radiation shield. All we can do is slow it down a whole lot by surrounding it with mass. The problem with this is that the nuclear plant itself becomes radioactive. The whole building soaks up the radiation and holds it. Once it's been running for 30 years, the operators can only do one hour shifts or they get too much exposure. After 50 years of operation, a typical plant is so contaminated that you can either dismantle it and put the whole building and the ground it stands on into a nuclear waste repository, or you can close it and keep people away for 500 YEARS before it cools enough to even approach. The only way nuclear plants can be called "cheap" is with shortsighted budgets that don't take this into account. The long-term view shows a fast return followed by a LONG period of worse than useless liability.

          The US is all of 200 years old. It's pretty arrogant to make stuff this dangerous and force our grandkids to deal with it. Take this dirty path now and you'll lower the incentive to develop the alternative sources that are less ethically (and economically) questionable.

    I'm all for nuclear power. As long as it's 93,000,000 miles away, right where it belongs.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen