As companies around the country creatively try to meet their energy demands with alternative forms of power, some old favorites are regaining traction and coming back into vogue. At Mason-Dixon Farms in Gettysburg, Pa., the Waybright family has been powering its farm with cow manure for almost three decades. In this E&E Special Report, "Energy Harvest: Power from the Farm," Greenwire reporter Allison Winter tells the Mason-Dixon Farm story and walks through the process of turning waste into power.
Allison Winter: This cow is part of a power plant. It is one of over 2,000 cattle at Mason Dixon Farms that provide not only the milk that keeps this Pennsylvania dairy in business, but also the fuel that is the source of the farm's electricity. Mason Dixon is one of a growing number of farms across the country that are providing their own power and selling back some of this green energy to the grid. Richard Waybright, a seventh generation farmer was in the vanguard of the movement when he decided to make his farm self-sufficient 28 years ago, during the gas crises of the 1970s. His eureka moment came when he and a friend observed gassy bubbles in the farm's manure holding pond.
Richard Waybright: And the guy told me, you realize, if you could capture those bubbles it'd be the same as having a Texas oil well.
Allison Winter: Waybright's Texas oil well is a manure pit. Manure is almost endlessly abundant on the farm. Cows produce more waste than milk. At Mason Dixon the manure travels through pipes underground to a digester tank. The methane and carbon dioxide that naturally occur in manure rise and power generators to create electricity. Each of Waybright's cows generates about 2.2 kilowatts of power a day, with only one 15 minute interruption in the years they've powered the farm. But it wasn't always that easy. Getting the digesters up and running took months of adjustments and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Richard Waybright: It takes, oftentimes, 15 or 20 years before it comes to the marketplace from the time it was first conceptualized. And that was true with us. It took us a couple of months before we got it operating right. Most people built, the few that were built, maybe operated a week or two and then they started to malfunction. And they gave up.
Allison Winter: The cows now power a sophisticated, high wattage farming operation that includes one of Waybright's more recent innovations, milking robots. The robots allow for a fully automated system where the cows, in a sense, milk themselves. Whenever a cow fancies a milking she walks over to the robotic milking parlors, is rewarded with a cookie and some extra food. The machine recognizes a computer chip on the cow's collar and scans her udders with a laser to look for any abnormalities. It sends real-time information on the cow to a computer in Waybright's office as it pumps the milk, which runs through pipes to a truck that they fill three times a day. Waybright says he is one of the first farmers to employ the Swedish robots. And credits his ability to use them and pursue other technology on a farm to his cow-generated power plant.
Richard Waybright: It's the fact that it frees us up to do other things with our dollars and makes it so we can go for the new innovation of whatever it is. Those things are coming along constantly. They always have and they continue to.
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