Kevin & Daryl Maas inspect the Rexville digester in Mount Vernon – Farm Power Northwest’s first project, which went online in 2009.
Concerned about the health and vitality of the environment, as well as farmland throughout our region, brothers Daryl and Kevin Maas dreamed of starting a business that would promote sustainability, while at the same time helping preserve the future of traditional family farming.
The Maas brothers grew up in Skagit County, primarily in Mount Vernon, and while their parents weren’t farmers, the family had several friends and relatives who were.
"Growing up, we’d hear farmers talk about how they couldn’t make it farming anymore and we watched family farms disappear,” explained Daryl Maas, who along with brother Kevin is the co-owner of Skagit County-based Farm Power Northwest LLC (Farm Power). "My brother Kevin and I wanted to run a family business that would promote sustainable agriculture through modernized farming and help preserve farming in our community.”
The brothers came across an anaerobic dairy digester on a farm in Whatcom County, and realized this new technology was exactly what they were looking for.
The brothers founded Farm Power, a renewable energy company, in 2007 and after two years of building a business plan, wading through regulations and seeking financial backing, they built their first anaerobic dairy digester in Mount Vernon in 2009.
|Local dignitaries, including County Exeutive Pete Kremen, center, and Kelli Linville, second from left, were among those at the ground breaking ceremony for Farm Power’s second digester for the Van Wingerden Greenhouses in Lynden.
From Waste to Green Energy
Maas noted that farmers like the idea of dairy digesters, but don’t have the time to deal with utilities and permitting, and many farms can’t justify the cost to build a system.
"We act as the developer, owner and operator. We enter into agreements with a dairy farmer to lease land, area farmers agree to provide the manure, then we organize, permit, fund and build the digester,” Maas explained. " We work with the farmers to construct underground pipelines, and they pump their manure to the digester for processing.”
Anaerobic bacteria convert the waste into methane-rich biogas, a clean renewable fuel that they burn on site to create electricity, which they sell to Puget Sound Energy (PSE) for PSE’s Green Power Program.
In explaining how the program works, Tom MacLean, manager of PSE’s Customer Renewable Energy Program, said, "Power cannot be discriminated from its various sources. All power produced feeds into the same system. But the power production is metered and there is a transparent accounting process that monitors how much green energy is produced, and renewable energy credits (RECs) are issued. PSE then sells the green power to customers who wish to pay the slight premium for renewable energy up to the amount of RECs that are available.”
The Mount Vernon digester processes about 50,000 gallons of manure a day, and produces about 750 kW of green energy. MacLean explained 750 kW provides enough power to serve about 500 homes for a year. "Customers of PSE who want to support projects like these in the northwest can do so by signing up for PSE’s Green Power Program,” MacLean added.
Besides producing "green power,” the digester operations benefit both the environment and the farmer on several additional levels.
Non-digested manure is normally stored in ponds on the farm called lagoons. As the manure breaks down, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. The digester harvests the methane gas, which never reaches the air, which decreases greenhouse gas emissions.
Maas said, "For every one cow’s manure we process, it’s about the same as taking one car off the road, as far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned.”
The digested bi-product is significantly useful for the farmer. The processed manure is returned to the farmers as an organic fertilizer, free of pathogens.
"Cities have developed around farmland, and many farmers live in fear of being sued for odor emissions. The processed, organic manure creates less odor – which makes everyone happy.”
The digester also breaks down the matter in the manure, so when it comes out of the digester, it’s composted. Solid fibers, called digested fiber, are removed, and this clean material is given to farmers to use as cow bedding. Wood shavings and sawdust are the primary bedding materials used today. Maas said using the free, digested fiber can save farmers thousands of dollars a month.
Farmer Eric Vander Kooy concurred. "We’ve worked with Farm Power from the beginning. We provide manure, and they give us fiber for bedding. It’s a big cost saver for us.”
Maas explained the digester can also process food and other waste into energy.
"We convert food waste from food processors and waste sludge from Draper Valley into energy. Waste normally destined for landfills we can use to make power.”
The Movement Toward Sustainable Agriculture
The primary principle behind sustainable agriculture is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
With expenditures on the rise, changes in government regulations and complaints from non-farming neighbors about odor, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for smaller family farms to survive. Farmers are looking to sustainable agriculture to earn income, cut costs, preserve land and be "better neighbors.” Farmers use alternative energies, such as biofuels, solar or wind to power their farms and/or to provide additional revenue.
Farmers, probably more than anyone, understand the importance of sustainable agriculture.
"All agriculture has to head in that direction,” said Vander Kooy. "We can’t add more land. There will be even more need to take care of what we have as the population grows.”
Looking Toward the Future
On June 28, 2010, Farm Power broke ground on its second anaerobic dairy digester in Lynden. It’s expected the facility will also produce 750 kW of energy, and the wastewater produced by its generator will be used to provide space heating for a nearby four-acre greenhouse.
The second digester was funded through a grant slightly more than $1 million from the Washington State Energy Program, a $500,000 USDA Rural Development grant and a $2.4 million loan from Shorebank Pacific. The project, to be built by contractor Andgar Corp. of Ferndale, is expected to go online before the end of the year.
Construction on a third digester near Enumclaw should start soon, and the Maas brothers hope to continue expanding throughout Washington state and along the West Coast.
"We would like to keep developing digesters throughout the region as long as there are good locations. We try to build where there are clusters of dairy farms – at least two to four close together that are willing to provide us with manure. Eventually, we hope to expand into Western Oregon and California.”
For the Maas brothers, building a sustainable business has been a long, but satisfying, process. They discovered just how difficult it is for a young business to receive financing, particularly during this recession. Maas credits their success in part to their community connections.
"Our deep roots in the region really helped us. We learned the value of community engagement and raising funds. We had a lot of allies in sustainable energy, but we still had to get funding, find investors … business is still business.”
As they look to future projects they are also looking to individuals as potential investors on upcoming projects, Maas notes.
In the end, the hard work is worth it. Their business is growing and their projects are well supported within their established communities, as well as through permitting and financing.
"It’s been hard work, but it’s a lot of fun to put together a project that benefits the community, is well received and that people like and support.”