Cows keep the lights on: Using methane digesters to turn waste into watts

When the sun rises each morning and we turn on the lights to start our day, many of us are unaware of exactly where the electricity lighting our homes originates or how it is created.

For many homes in California’s San Joaquin Valley, that electricity is being powered by an unexpected source: cow manure.

Powered by Poop - Using methane digesters to turn waste into electricity

photo of sun rising over a farmhouseAt Fiscalini Farms outside Modesto, California, Brian Fiscalini and his family are practicing sustainable dairy farming by using a dairy methane digester. The methane digester converts the manure created by their dairy cows into electricity by combining the manure with high levels of heat.

“We have two tanks that store cow manure,” said Brian. “We heat those tanks up. If you think about heat and cow poop together, you’re going to make a lot of methane gas. The unique thing that we do is we capture that gas and we pipe it to an engine. That engine converts methane gas into electricity.”

The electricity created via the methane digesters powers the entire Fiscalini dairy farm operation, and beyond.

“The power that we produce is enough electricity to run our cheese plant, our dairy farm, and then we also have excess power that powers about 300 homes in the community,” said Brian. “We also take some of that excess heat and heat our water to wash our milk barn, to wash our equipment in our cheese plant.”

In addition to these impressive benefits, in the 10 years since they were first installed, the methane digesters have allowed the Fiscalini operation to reduce its propane usage by around 70%.

Despite these remarkable statistics, Brian believes that the people living in the suburban homes of the San Joaquin Valley may not know the interesting source of their electricity.

“I would guess that most people that live in our surrounding areas, in the suburban areas, would be very surprised to know that their electricity actually came from a renewable source and was cow manure at one point — powered by poop,” he said.

dairy cows eating out of a trough

For Fiscalini Farms, sustainability is personal

Brian and his coworkers milk 1,500 cows three times a day. A portion of that milk is used to create their own Fiscalini-branded cheese and dairy products, while another portion is sold to Nestlé to create evaporated and condensed milk.

The land on which this dairy operates has been farmed by the Fiscalini family for more than a century. Although much has changed over the years, some critical ideas have stayed the same.

“My great-grandfather bought some land back in 1914 and started milking cows, and we’ve been fortunate enough to continue to farm on the same piece of ground that he purchased,” said Brian. “Sustainability is kind of a newer buzzword, but when you think about it, we’ve been sustainable for over 100 years. My grandfather had a very thorough intention of keeping this land around for further generations.”

Brian is adamant about continuing this legacy, and he is helping ensure the farm’s existence by turning methane into something useful.

“If we were to just have this pile of cow manure out there and we weren’t able to apply it to the land, it would give off greenhouse gases,” said Brian. “What we’re doing is we’re trying to reduce them as much as we can and use the manure for another process.”

This transformation of carbon dioxide into a positive source of electricity might contradict a common misconception that many consumers have about the farming and agriculture industry: that it is the source of a great amount of pollution. As a farmer, Brian has a heightened awareness of this disconnect between farmers and non-farmers, and he is actively working to close that gap by dispelling some long-standing myths about who farmers are and what they do.

“One of the most challenging things about what we do is, how do we tell our story?” asked Brian. “So, how can I connect with my neighbors and let them know that, ‘Hey, when you woke up this morning and flipped that light switch, we helped do that. We were a part of that process’?

“As people move further and further away from the farm, physically and emotionally, what we as farmers need to do is to bridge that gap again,” Brian continued. “We need to include consumers in what we’re doing. We need to let them know what we’re doing. And I think that, if the average consumer knew that there was this 100-year-old dairy farm that was converting methane gas into electricity, they would probably look at farmers in a little different way.”

Harnessing agricultural innovation for a more sustainable future

Brian Fiscalini standing with dairy cows in a pen

Farming may have been passed on to Brian as a family business, but he is extremely passionate about farming both as a vocation and how it can impact the world.

“I take farming very seriously, and I think that most farmers do, because we know someone has to do this work,” he said. “We all know that we have a pretty important task of producing food in a safe manner for the world to consume. Someone has to feed the planet, and if we don’t do it, who is going to?

“I think we have a nice challenge ahead of us,” Brian continued. “We need to figure out how we’re going to feed a growing world. We’ll figure out how to do it, and we’re going to provide some of the safest and healthiest foods people have ever had. If we’re not committed to that, then we shouldn’t be farming.”

Just as his own operation evolved by using methane digesters to turn waste into energy, Brian believes that the agriculture industry can — and will — continue to grow, change and become more sustainable, just as he thinks every industry must in order to stay relevant.

“We need to continue to innovate. We need to continue to tell our story and use the right platforms to connect with consumers,” said Brian. “Consumers are going to end up telling us what they want. And if we don’t listen, then we’re going to be in big trouble. So, if the environment is really important to consumers, then we need to make sure that’s what we’re focusing on. If the way that we care for our cows is important to consumers, then we need to make sure that we’re letting them know that it’s been taught to us from a very young age that taking care of our cows and our land and the environment is important.”

Equally significant for Brian is the legacy of sustainability that he will leave for his children.

“I think, when they get a little bit older, my kids are just going to have a huge appreciation that, ‘Dad’s not just a farmer. Dad is caring about the environment, he’s caring about his cows,’” said Brian. “I have every intention of making this farm better, more sustainable, more friendly to the environment.”

As the Fiscalini family continues their dairying tradition of more than 100 years, they are committed to finding new ways to improve, not only for their farm, but for the good of the planet.

“Our family — maybe it’s just our genetic makeup — we’ve always wanted to try new things,” said Brian. “We haven’t succeeded every single time. We’ve learned a lot of lessons, but I think that’s what keeps farming fun.

“We wake up, we have new ideas, we want to try things, and the intention of trying those things is to make the farm better every day,” he continued. “Better for the next generation. Better next week. Better tomorrow. Whatever we can do to keep improving and making things better for our people, for our cows and for our land. We take it very seriously. And that’s how all farmers are. We’re committed to this. That’s why we get out of bed.”

by Elizabeth Trollinger | Sep 12, 2019