When you think of renewable energy, the images that come to mind are solar panels and wind turbines. Factory farms, the “natural” gas industry and big utility companies want you to add one more: Cow poop.
Power companies and their friends in the fossil fuel industry have a long history of greenwashing their assault on public health, the environment, and our climate. Past PR campaigns from the fossil fuel industry have included children’s coloring books to spin fracking and paid radio spots on NPR that promote ‘clean burning’ natural gas. Now, these industries are partnering with factory farms to convince the public that animal waste can be turned into clean power.
That’s right—the industry is claiming that waste from factory farms should count as a ‘negative’ greenhouse gas emission. Factory farms emit methane directly into the atmosphere, in part thanks to the lagoons and slurries used to manage the huge volumes of manure. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, generated by anaerobic (oxygen-deprived) digestion in these waste pits. So, by building expensive facilities to capture and burn the “biogas,” the logic goes, factory farms reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
But this ‘solution’ isn’t what it is cracked up to be. For starters, there is no reason to accept massive factory farms as part of a clean energy system. Pasture-based manure management would avoid the need for massive (and often deadly) manure pits, and thus would avoid this methane problem in the first place. Local communities should not allow factory farming, and the huge plumes of methane it generates, regardless of the ability to capture a fraction of that methane.
Second, this technological fix for turning pollution into power often doesn’t work as advertised. Digesters experience a high failure rate; as of spring 2016, the EPA indicated that 13 of 26 digesters in California had been shuttered. And they create other health problems: A California study showed that building out infrastructure in the state to burn biogas and other biomass, such as wood pellets, could create new air quality problems. Large areas of the Central Valley of California, which has some of the worst air quality in the state, would see increased air-particle pollution.
And factory farms are still left with the huge volume of solid waste that remains following the digestion process. Digesters generate methane gas from partially breaking down the manure, but they do not make the nutrient loads (nitrogen and phosphorous) in the manure evaporate or disappear. In fact, recent research finds that spreading manure after anaerobic digestion increases ammonia emissions, compared to spreading raw manure. Ammonia is a toxic gas in its own right that can mix with other chemicals and create new pollutants that can create serious health problems.
So despite all the greenwashing, these systems simply fail to live up to the hype. And we are all paying to keep them going. Because of the high infrastructure costs necessary to capture, transport, process, and burn animal waste gas for fuel, these projects cannot move forward without massive ratepayer or taxpayer subsidies. Every dollar the public spends incentivizing dirty energy from factory farming is money that is not spent on truly clean renewable energy, or on taking steps to actually stop unsustainable farming practices.
The waste from factory farms is not just being proposed for generating electricity, but also as a transportation fuel that is being branded as “renewable natural gas” (RNG). Los Angeles just entered into a multiyear contract to switch some of their gas buses to these RNG vehicles. The spin is that this is cleaner than diesel, which is true if your only alternative is existing diesel vehicles. However, RNG buses release greenhouse gases and harmful air pollutants, whereas electric buses, powered by truly clean energy like solar and wind, create zero emissions. Los Angeles recently made a commitment to move towards 100% clean buses, but the city’s plan leaves the door open to consider even more of these dirty RNG buses in their “renewable” fleet.
Corporate interests are trying to force the public to choose between bad options: Either pay for costly biogas digesters, or you have to live with the massive amounts of methane from factory farms. Either depend on diesel-spewing mass transit, or ‘renewable’ gas buses powered by factory farming. We know there are better choices than that.
Communities must demand that decision-makers look at the full picture of our energy future. Buildling out dependence on biogas incentivizes factory farms and serves the interests of Big Ag.