Vermont farms could use manure to help generate electricity and produce a commercially viable fertilizer if a federally funded experiment is successful.
President Clinton is expected to sign legislation this week that will authorize the $ 300,000 study that Vermont's Republican Sen. James Jeffords says could help turn "cow chips into blue chips."
The Vermont Public Service Department will use the money to research technologies for making electricity by burning methane released from cow manure.
A manure-to-energy system is already successfully operating at the Foster Brothers farm in Middlebury, where the process not only creates electricity for use on the farm, but also produces a rich organic fertilizer marketed around the region as "Moo Doo."
Scudder Parker, an energy planner with the Public Service Department, said there were multiple benefits to methane-to-energy projects. The first, he said, is to help farmers' operations by reducing their dependence on electricity bought from the major utilities.
In addition, the methane-to-energy technology should also allow farmers to turn what has traditionally been viewed as a waste product into a commercially salable item, as the producers of Moo Doo have done.
The technology also has environmental benefits. Methane is a so-called "greenhouse gas" that scientists believe makes a significant contribution to global warming. When methane is burned to create electricity, the byproduct is carbon dioxide - still a greenhouse gas, but not nearly as potent as methane.
And collecting cow manure for a waste-to-energy system also helps to prevent pollution of groundwater sources, Parker said.
Methane energy projects are not likely to make a big difference in Vermont's electricity supply, although he added that the technology's full potential has yet to be determined.
Ideally, he said, the federal grant will allow the department to create a model program that both lending agencies and farmers can make use of. Parker added that making the technology relatively easy to finance, install, and maintain would be essential to its success.
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