Power from waste
The nose-crinkling smell wafting up from Skagit
County farm fields has different meanings for different people.
farmers, it’s a reassurance that their land is being replenished with nutrients.
For city folks, it’s a signal to roll up their car windows.
entrepreneurs Daryl and Kevin Maas, that not-so-subtle scent represents an
untapped green energy source that could one day power thousands of homes
throughout the county.
Electricity from cow pies?
Using a simple process that’s been around for decades, the Mount
Vernon-born siblings would like to build up to five small power plants capable
of converting cow manure into usable energy.
Their company, Farm Power
Northwest LLC, will construct, fund and operate the plants on land leased from
area dairy farms.
The first site in south Mount Vernon, which they hope
to have up and running sometime next year, will process 90,000 gallons of manure
“When they hear about it, most people starting thinking of
jokes,” Kevin Maas said. “And there’s quite a few.”
But turning manure
into power could be serious business. At full capacity, their first site will
create enough electricity to power the entire town of La Conner.
location will require an anaerobic manure digester, which consists of a heated
concrete holding tank, where bacteria converts portions of the manure into a
Burning the gas stokes a nearby power generator, and
the resulting power is sent to the grid.
The company will build the
digesters near large concentrations of dairies so that manure can be pumped in
from the closest ones and trucked in from others.
The brothers aren’t
farmers. Daryl Maas, 29, is an Air Force veteran.
His older brother,
Kevin Maas, 31, is a former high school history teacher, who recently completed
a master’s degree in sustainable business from the Bainbridge Graduate
The Maas brothers are banking on the likelihood that the
project will be an easy sell for local dairy farmers and power companies.
So far, so good.
Local dairy farmers, who’ve been beset in
recent years by unstable milk prices, are interested because the project would
mean additional revenue via manure sales.
Meanwhile, state mandates to
increase green energy production have made the project enticing for Puget Sound
Energy, which has already drafted an agreement to purchase power from Farm Power
Compared to solar and wind power, methane digesters provide
an uninterrupted source of energy.
“Solar only works during the day;
wind only works when it’s windy,” Daryl Maas said. “This goes 24/7.”
Digesters have global warming related benefits, as well.
Normally, when cow manure is spread over a farm field as fertilizer,
methane — a greenhouse gas — is released into the atmosphere. A digester
captures that gas and keeps it out of the atmosphere.
cow served by the digester has the same effect as removing one car from the
So far, only two other Washington dairies, including one in
Lynden, operate digesters.
The catch? For starters, the systems aren’t
The Maas brothers’ first site will cost about $4 million.
Ned Zaugg, dairy specialist at the Washington State University Skagit
Cooperative Extension, said that the economics of running a digester have kept
the technology off of farms here.
Digesters are popular in the Midwest,
where herds are larger. But dairy farmers in this region typically don’t have
herds big enough to make a digester profitable.
Even if they did, most
are saddled with too much debt to finance such a project.
involved in a study in Stanwood that explored the feasibility of creating a
centralized digester for a collection of smaller farms.
Even then, the
numbers didn’t work out.
“When you tallied everything together, it was a
negative,” he said.
But when it comes to alternative energy markets,
things are changing very quickly.
Shulin Chen, who directs WSU’s
Agri-Environmental and Bioproducts Engineering Research Group in Pullman,
believes digesters could soon be all the rage as the prices small-time power
producers earn are rising.
“As energy prices go up, digesters are
becoming more feasible,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll see more.”
brothers believe high energy prices and a regulatory environment favoring green
energy make this the perfect time to launch their project.
Energy appears willing to commit to a high price for methane power for at least
the next decade.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ initial proposal to sell
carbon credits to the Portland, Ore.-based Climate Trust has already been
Those two income streams should generate more than half of the
The remainder will come from selling the digester’s
solid byproduct, which can be used as cow bedding or sawdust. The company also
expects to receive federal tax credits.
The brothers launched their
fledgling company in April. Since then, they’ve been shuffling back and forth
between dairy farms and boardrooms in Seattle, where they’ve been meeting with
lawyers, accountants and potential investors.
In the end, they hope
their company can play a role in sustaining the local dairy industry.
“We like the idea of helping preserve the same farms we drove by as
kids,” Daryl Maas said.
* Josh Lintereur can be reached at 360-416-2141
or at jlintereur @skagitvalleyherald.com.