Bovine Power

December 15, 2005
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MUSKEGON — Grand Valley State University's Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center is giving the agriculture industry a chance to see a source of renewable energy in action before deciding to pursue it for farms.

The center has received a $1 million grant from the Michigan Public Services Commission for the $1.3 million biomass-to-methane-to-electricity demonstration pilot plant. It is tentatively planned to be located at the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant and set to be operating in 2007.

Imad Mahawili, executive director of the energy center and the Muskegon Smart Zone, said he believes the plant, which will use methane extracted from agricultural waste such as animal manure and farm waste cellulose-containing material to produce electricity, will be a way for Michigan farmers to see how they could utilize their waste and solve some of their environmental problems.

"If we're successful, I think other farm business owners will say, 'We want to do that' — and they will know how to do that," he said.

Mahawili said the technology will be able to produce the energy to run the equivalent of 40 houses, using the waste of 500 cows. Muskegon is a strategic location for the demonstration plant considering the prevalence of bovine and swine agriculture in West Michigan, he said.

Mahawili said this particular kind of plant has had success in countries such as Germany and Austria, where experts have worked to improve the technology considerably since it was first used about 20 years ago. 

"They have a very advanced, very leading-edge technology for removing sulfur by using bacteria," he said.

The technology reduces pollutants such as sulfur that enter the air and water through biomass. The plant also offers a realistic solution to disposing of animal waste and producing a byproduct of sterile compost that could be sold as an agricultural soil enrichment agent.

Tonia Ritter, legislative counsel at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said she hopes the pilot plant will help the farmers troubleshoot and see firsthand the issues they might have to deal with.

"I hope that the money that has been invested in them for research and for the facilities can benefit agriculture on a greater scale," she said.

Ritter said byproducts from farming are an important issue, particularly in West Michigan, where a large livestock industry is competing with urban expansion and population growth.

"There becomes this ever-increasing issue of less land to deal with some of these byproducts that we have with the livestock industry," she said. "Hopefully the project that (Mahawili) is working on will really give farmers an opportunity to take a look at something in process."

Ritter said she is happy to see the plant being undertaken by a university on this side of the state.

"We're excited about these opportunities for agriculture and are pleased to see GrandValley involved in this," she said. "In the past typically we've worked primarily with MichiganState (University), but it's certainly a pleasure seeing other universities involved."

Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission, said the commission funded the grant because it believes that the project will make further strides in energy efficiency by researching the practical applications.

"We're facing high energy costs at this moment," she said. "Energy efficiency is very much on people's minds. Those improvements will benefit the entire state and the research will be invaluable for finding applications for energy efficiency elsewhere."    

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