Co-op Digester Has Dairy Couple Hopeful for the Future

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — When Cliff and Andrea Sensenig decided to buy his father’s dairy farm in 2008, it didn’t take them long to realize that making it as dairy farmers wouldn’t be easy.

“It just wasn’t going well. The milk prices were bad. We needed to do something,” Andrea Sensenig said.

She then took a page from her parents, who have a manure digester, bringing up the idea of installing one on their farm, too.

“But we knew we couldn’t do it on 100 cows. So we started looking around” for others who could feed the digester to make it work financially, she said.

They didn’t have to look far, though, as Cliff Sensenig’s brother and uncle, both of whom have farms next to theirs near Peach Bottom, were eager to join the project.

Three years after planning began, the Sensenigs’ co-op manure digester is up and running.

The $1.5 million digester, designed by RCM International of Berkeley, Calif., can process up to 16,800 tons of manure a year.

The project is unusual in that it not only uses manure from two other farms via underground pipes, but also from chickens and pigs as well as cows.

Cliff Sensenig’s uncle, Elmer Sensenig, operates a 130-cow dairy on one side of the farm, while his brother, Cleason Sensenig, who is separated by an adjoining Plain Sect farmer on the opposite side, raises 2,000 pigs and 30,000 laying hens.

Gas generated from the digester powers a 200-kilowatt generator, which provides enough power for the farm and allows the couple to sell electricity to PPL, their electric utility.

The couple held an open house for the digester on Nov. 15. And while they’re excited about the project, they’re not quite ready to call it a success.

“It’s too soon to tell,” Cliff Sensenig said. “The first step is actually seeing it up and running. We haven’t seen any cash come from it here yet.”

The project was in the planning stages for more than two years.

Jeff Ainslie of Red Barn Consulting said the couple benefited from a transition team set up through the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence, which helped look at financing, engineering and permitting costs.

“It was a long process from concept to groundbreaking and now completion,” Ainslie said.

Since the farm is in what the state considers a “high quality watershed,” the project required extensive permitting — 19 different permits from nine state agencies, according to Cliff Sensenig.

Merv Yoder of RCM International said the project was one of the most difficult he’s worked on, mainly because of the piping required to collect manure from the three farms. One pipe is just over a mile in length.

But having the ability to mix manure was crucial, Yoder said, since hog manure tends to be watery on its own and chicken manure is dry.

“So that’s allowed us to make a solution that’s pumpable to get it to this location,” he said. “And then from here, we’re able to mix it with the dairy manure to make a mix (so) that you’re not feeding one type one day and another type the next day. It’s somewhat like a TMR (total mixed ration).”

Along with making money from selling electricity, the project comes with other perks, too.

Cliff Sensenig said his brother will benefit from the less smelly manure he’ll be able to spread on his fields.

His uncle, meanwhile, will get all of the bedding he can use on his dairy farm, saving him money in the process.

All three will be able to use treated manure from the digestion process to spread on their fields.

Cliff and Andrea Sensenig also hope to collect tipping fees from food waste collected through local businesses to add to the manure.

And they’re using waste heat from the generator to heat their home and dairy parlor, and to dry some grain, saving them money in propane.

The effluent coming from the digester goes through a screw press separator to remove the solids from the liquid to turn it into bedding for cows.

Still, it’s safe to say the project wouldn’t have happened without government assistance, something project organizers say needs to change for future projects to get off the ground.

Most of the cost — 70 percent — was paid through grants from state and federal governments.

At the same time, electricity prices have fallen, thanks in part to a plentiful supply of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Allison Costa of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Ag Star Program, said federal budget cuts will likely lead to less government money for similar projects in the future.

Nationwide, between 10 and 15 digesters are going in each year, Costa said. But most of those get government money, and with Congress in a budget-cutting mood, she expects the number of digester installations to slow down.

Adding to that, project costs have increased an average of 30 percent over the past three years.

“We’re likely to see a slowdown,” she said. “But hopefully, with interest from corporations and from investment firms, we’ll start having other business models that pick up the pace.”

Anthony DeVito of PPL Renewables said a different funding mechanism for digesters needs to be explored, with perhaps more banks providing financing or splitting up the business to spread the costs among multiple owners.

“The current way of financing things tends to use a lot of grants and public money,” he said, “and without that going forward, we’re going to have to have a different discussion if you want these plants to continue to be installed.”

DeVito said PPL would be interested in financing to the extent it would want projects generating nutrient credits for its existing power plants.

Companies can buy nutrient credits through the state’s nutrient trading program if they are considered point-source polluters and are capped in the amount of nutrients they can legally discharge into a nearby waterway.

Nevertheless, as long as there is cheap natural gas and electric companies keep switching from coal to natural gas to operate power plants, DeVito thinks it will be harder for farmers to rely just on electricity generation to make money from a manure digester.

“The current price is affecting the way power plants are run. As long as you have cheap gas, it’s going to be difficult to build renewable energy projects,” he said.

Mike Brubaker, owner of Brubaker Farms in Mount Joy, Pa., said falling electric prices have forced him to cut costs and cancel a planned expansion of his farm’s manure digester.

But Brubaker said he’s impressed with the co-op digester model.

“Keys to success, a lot of it is management — just fine-tuning things as you go,” he said. “It’s something you don’t just build and forget about it.”

The Sensenigs hope the digester will enable their three young children to stay on the farm when they’re adults.

“We looked at hogs and chickens and pigs, but when we looked at the numbers we could get out of a digester, nothing came close,” Andrea Sensenig said. “It’s pretty much just what’s going to make this farm work and what’s going to make our kids stick around.”

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