Friday, May 21, 2010

Something Stinks: Cow Manure as Alternative Energy Source

My initial reaction to the New York Times article about cow manure as an alternative energy source for large data centers is mixed. While I love the idea of looking for sources of alternative energy, I am suspicious that this idea of biogas generators will really only benefit large operations. Small dairy farmers may find it difficult to nigh on impossible to pay for another huge chunk of machinery that runs (based on 2004 prices from a Wisconsin Biogas Initiative Presentation) $738/per cow. Meaning that if I'm a small dairy farmer with say, 200 cows, it's going to cost me $147,600 for the machinery. Good grief. For an industry already in trouble and with a decreasing number of farms, this does not seem like a very practical answer unless you build your own.

Here's what I see that I don't like.

1. Large buildings taking up enormous amounts of fertile growing space. Farmers already have trouble keeping a farm going that is nearly buckling under the weight of loans for machinery (ahem!), high taxes on land viewed as more valuable if it's NOT growing food for your table, and an industry that supports monoculture using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are backfiring left and right despite warnings from scientists.

2. A plan for an alternative energy source that really misses the mark. The article sites India and Texas as great places for this technology to develop. For heaven's sake, did anyone ever notice the freakin' sun? The wind? How about technology for energy that would actually be useful for everyone over the long term?

3. An idea that will only benefit the large operation. Ok, I love farming, but those big operations are not my cup of tea. It's not that I think every large scale farmer is inherently evil, mean to their animals, or doesn't care about their land. Not at all. What I find annoying is that small farmers will once again be screwed by a system that still sees bigger as better despite signals from consumers and scientists that smaller (and organic) is feasible for farmers and local economies, and even, dare I say it, ideal.

I'm all for alternative energy and think it's more than high time we look for real solutions, but bless their hearts over at HP this idea seems short-sighted at best.


Anjuli said...

Excellent point!!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks, Anjuli. I do think it's a great idea in many ways, but I think it is just a bit short-sighted. What I think we're already learning is that the small farmers and producers offer more often than not a high quality product that is again, more often than not, put on the table in a sustainable and responsible way. Projects like this while commendable are not as helpful as we might like.