Indeed there are plenty of farmers, economists, and environmentalists who would argue that the generators encourage the trend toward larger farms. The size of herds needed to fuel generators will force traditional family farms to become family corporate farms similar to, or larger than, Haubenschild Farms. Engineer Moser notes that the system "starts to make sense at about 400 cows." Minnesota's average size dairy is 66 cows.
"I'm all for the environmental benefits of this," says Richard Ness of the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota nonprofit that supports small family farms. "But the cost of building one of these generators is way beyond what the average farmer can afford."
This may be true, concedes John Lamb, of the St. Paul-based environmental advocacy group the Minnesota Project, which is coordinating the public-private partnership to turn Haubenschild's manure into fuel. But the number of farms with enough cows to support a generator is increasing. "We don't know if this will work for a 100-cow dairy, but given the trend in the growth in the size of dairy herds, we expect there to be 300 to 400 [methane generators] in Minnesota in the next ten years," he says. "Something like this is small potatoes to a utility like NSP, but we think there's a future in farmers and progressive utilities profitably producing decentralized, locally generated electricity."
Indeed, a number of recent changes in both agriculture and the power industry conspired to make Dennis Haubenschild's 20-year-old dream become reality. In the last decade, researchers have begun to understand that methane produced by livestock and manure lagoons is a major cause of global warming. At the same time, utilities have become increasingly interested in finding new sources of environmentally sound power.
"This is working very well for us," explains Henry Fisher, the business and community relations manager for East Central Energy Cooperative. "We take that energy and roll it into our green-power program where we can charge a premium over the retail rate to cover our distribution costs." East Central has 200 customers willing to pay extra to purchase green power; the company's green-power program, known as Well Spring, has previously relied only on wind-generated power.
"We're working with two other of our farmer customers who are interested in building these," Fisher continues. "It's not a big source of electricity but it allows us to deliver an environmentally safe energy to our customers." He notes that Ottertail Power, an electrical cooperative in western Minnesota, has expressed interest in the Haubenschild generator, and "NSP has expressed interest in larger systems such as poultry-manure generators."
The Minnesota Department of Commerce, which helped to build and pay for Haubenschild's generator, wants to build a prototype manure generator at a hog farm. The Minnesota Project is coordinating the nearly dozen government and private partners--including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance--involved in financing and studying the Haubenschild generator.
Whether converting cow dung to kilowatts lives up to its early promise as an environmental boon, the cows at Haubenschild Farms need to be milked every morning. And each morning electric lights chase the dark from the milking parlor so workers can begin their shifts. In the barn, computerized feeding equipment--electrically powered--calculates each day's feed rations. As the quiet of night is dispelled by light and noise, the big black and white Holsteins wait and chew and defecate.
Haubenschild used to despair as he watched those cow pies pile up. But these days, he's confident that the waste isn't contaminating anybody's water supply or forcing neighbors to hide indoors. The big Cat engine is sending electricity surging over the grid to ring alarm clocks and perk coffee for his family and neighbors, and he's a lot happier with that equation.