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Originally published Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sunday Buzz

Manure provides green power in Monroe

Sunday Buzz: Qualco's "green power" plant takes manure and turns it into electricity for Puget Sound Energy.

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

"Green power" comes out of the Qualco Energy biomass digester south of Monroe's suburban sprawl, but what goes in is runny, steamy and brown in the morning sunlight. You don't want it on your shoes.

This past week Puget Sound Energy bought its first batch of electricity from the digester. That culminates more than five years of political, financial and mechanical engineering by Qualco, an innovative nonprofit formed by local farmers, the Tulalip Tribes and a salmon-advocacy group.

"It's a win-win-win-win" for those interests and others who "would rather have cows than condos" in these fields near the confluence of the Skykomish and Snohomish rivers, says Qualco president Dale Reiner, a third-generation local who farms a few hundred acres down the road.

Qualco will get about $300,000 a year for providing Puget enough electricity to power an estimated 280 homes, says utility spokesman Andy Wappler. In addition to a standard wholesale price for electricity, Puget pays a "Green Power" premium funded by customers who voluntarily contribute a monthly surcharge to support renewable energy.

The heart of the digester project is an Olympic-size swimming pool filled 15 feet deep with liquid manure and heated to 100 degrees; fortunately, the process requires an airtight roof.

The methane gas coming off the manure travels through yellow tubes labeled "biogas" into the adjacent powerhouse, where it is burned in a large engine that generates 450 kilowatts of power to feed the Snohomish Public Utility District grid.

Brothers Andy and Jim Werkhoven, whose dairy connects to Qualco with a mile-long pipe that supplies 65,000 gallons a day of the digester's main ingredient, say the biomass power plant is crucial to their farm's future.

Milk producers face "absolutely the worst time" in decades because of slumping prices and high feed costs, says Andy Werkhoven, so turning animal waste into an economic asset is attractive. As housing encroaches on the area, eliminating odors is important, too.

With the dairy barns flushed frequently and the effluent shipped over to Qualco, "There's not a turd on that farm that's more than 5 hours old," he says. That means "the cows will not be annoying the neighbors."

Equally crucial to the venture are the broader environmental benefits.

For one, methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — isn't liberated into the atmosphere but is captured and burned to produce energy and the less-potent carbon dioxide. What's more, the solids that emerge from the digester after about three weeks are virtually odor-free; they can be used as bedding for the cows, or cooked into field-ready compost in giant, 160-degree drums.

Finally, the rich nitrogen compounds in the remaining liquid have been chemically transformed so they're more useful in the fields and less damaging to salmon streams, Werkhoven says.

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Reiner says he aims to add another engine so the plant can reach its full waste-processing capacity — 2,200 cows. Werkhoven has a small herd of pregnant cows and calves right on the Qualco site, to provide the solid manure that's also part of the digester's recipe.

Reiner also brings in a daily truckload of whey from a neighboring cheese factory, and a truck of eggs that don't meet market standards arrives every other day — "waste product that otherwise would go into the sewage system," Reiner says. Washington State University researchers are at the site daily, measuring what goes in and comes out.

Qualco's dairy digester is the first in the Puget Sound area; an older one, in Lynden, also sells power to Puget Sound Energy.

Another, under construction in Skagit County by Mount Vernon-based Farm Power, received payment from Puget's Green Power program last week to cover the first year's worth of renewable-energy credits.

Farm Power President Kevin Maas says the electricity should start flowing this summer, but the money is handy because "it's the upfront costs that can kill these projects."

The spread of such digesters is not limited by the technology, which is well-established, nor the financing, which is doable, he says. Rather, the main challenge is assuring that nearby dairy farmers will remain in business long enough for the project to earn its return.

"It's really rough on the dairymen right now," he says. "They're trying to keep their cows well fed without going broke."

Nonetheless, he says "we're starting to pile up the paper" of commitments for another digester near Enumclaw.

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@-

seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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