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Digesters: Helpful in reducing farm emissions?

Agricultural biogas plants on the farm
Lutsenko Oleksandr/Олександр Луценко - stock.adobe.com
Agricultural biogas plants on the farm

Wisconsin is part of a movement to reduce livestock emissions by converting manure into energy sources, and there are calls to weave in a careful approach.

Anaerobic digesters create biogas by removing methane from livestock waste. The gas can then be used for electricity, heat or vehicle fuel. Supporters say the process limits methane from reaching the atmosphere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Energy For America Program helps fund these projects on farms in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the jury is still out on the effectiveness of digesters, and he urges the USDA to keep science in mind when considering the projects.

"There's how things work on paper and then, there's how things work on the ground," Olsen pointed out. "There's a lot of space in between the two."

Olsen argued the industry still needs to overcome challenges like methane leaks. Skeptics of the technology said among other things, federal funding incentivizes participating farms to expand their operations, creating more nuisance issues for surrounding communities. Still, Olsen noted the industry should be given time to address the shortcomings.

The Rural Energy for America Program also funds wind and solar projects on farm sites. Olsen noted there has been added support from the Inflation Reduction Act to expand outreach and technical assistance as a way to boost interest.

"I'm hoping to see a lot more good, energy-efficiency projects from that, which is the number-one place we should be starting," Olsen contended.

Olsen added improvements to grain dryers to help reduce natural gas use in harvesting are another example of energy efficiency efforts. As for digesters, a report from the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation said there are 136 operating systems around the state, with 34 tied to agriculture.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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