From cow poop to power

MONROE — It’s 193 feet long, 80 feet wide and 17 feet deep, and its belly used to be filled with milk.

Now, this milk tank is holding more than 1 million gallons of another product from cows: manure.

Burbling away inside that tank is a hope that it can save local dairy farms, keep streams cleaner and make energy.

Snohomish County’s first biogas plant — located at the old Honor Farm in the rural Tualco Valley — is starting to do just that.

A biogas plant harnesses the methane gas in manure, which can be burned to create electricity.

Dairies send cow manure to the plant through underground pipes. The pipes all lead to a vat of twirling, swirling bovine excrement.

“Yeah, that’s a hole you don’t want to get in,” said Dale Reiner, a cattle rancher who has spent thousands of unpaid hours on the project.

That milk tank is now a biodigester, which separates methane gas from the manure. The gas heads to a generator. The leftovers get a new life: The liquid returns to the fields as a nutrient-rich soil amendment and the leftover fiber gets mixed with biosolids from Monroe and turned into compost that can be sold.

The plant has been glugging away since December, producing enough energy to power hundreds of homes continuously, Reiner said. The nonprofit group behind the biogas plant, Qualco Energy, just signed a contract to sell power to Puget Sound Energy. The plant, paid for by loans and grants, cost about $4 million.

“I do it because I really believe in agriculture,” Reiner said. “We don’t have great big farms — we have a whole lot of little farms and most farmers don’t have enough income to be able to hire research and development people. So it has to come from somewhere.”

He believes this is one way to save dairies, which have struggled against fluctuating milk prices, industry concentration, urban sprawl and limits on waste disposal.

Dairies limit herd size because of the cow’s waste and the biogas plant is a way to dispose of it, Reiner said.

“They want the ability to add more cows without worrying about the land,” he said.

The more cows dairies can keep, the more milk they can sell. Three dairies have signed contracts to work with the plant. If the three add 1,700 cows, they could gross $6.4 million annually. And that helps everyone from the driver who hauls the milk to the company that makes the milk cartons, Reiner said. His organization has estimated the economic benefit to the community at $19.7 million.

“That pays taxes, puts people to work and builds schools,” he said.

The Tulalip Tribes, one of the partners in the nonprofit, want something too: cleaner streams and healthier salmon runs. Runs have declined and boats sit dry-docked on the edge of Tulalip Bay. Dealing with dairy waste upstream is one method for helping the fish, Reiner said.

The Honor Farm, 277 acres of fields and farm buildings, used to belong to the reformatory in Monroe. The state signed it over to the tribes.

The tribes receive no direct economic benefit from the venture.

“They get nothing out of it,” he said. “They’re interested in clean water and they want farmers. They’ve said they’d rather have cows than condos.”

The other partners behind this venture are dairy farmers and environmentalists. It seems like a disparate group, Reiner said, but it’s working.

“We got looking at our similarities rather than differences,” he said. “We discovered we had more in common with independent fishermen and farmers than other segments of our society.”

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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