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How farms can use the ‘untapped potential’ of biogas systems

cow drinking water

Livestock are responsible for about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This estimate includes methane released from burping cows, but manure and livestock waste also contribute to these emissions. Biogas systems are an untapped technology that can capture emissions from livestock waste and use it as a form of renewable energy.

Only 8 farms in Michigan currently have biogas systems – these are on-site anaerobic digesters that process organic waste and convert it into fertilizer and natural gas.

But the American Biogas Council estimatesthere’s a potential for 245 additional biogas systems to be built on Michigan farms.

Dana Kirk is the manager of MSU’s Anaerobic Digester Research and Education Center. He said anaerobic digesters allow farms to be more environmentally sustainable, while also helping farmers diversify their revenue.

“By utilizing anaerobic digestion, we can generate renewable natural gas, but we also then condition the manure so that we can more effectively do nutrient separation, water recovery, do things that address more holistically, the environmental needs of dairy production,” Kirk said.

Kirk said a recent rise in biogas systems is being driven by federal and state initiatives to expand the nation’s renewable energy sector.

“Anaerobic digestion can plug into the gas side as well as the electricity side," Kirk said. "We want to have food production systems that are more environmentally sustainable, and the technology allows us to do that very nicely with milk production.”

Kirk said biogas systems can be expensive and need to be planned for carefully, but the industry needs to overcome those challenges to reduce its emissions.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.