Nor Cal's PGE not a fan of the cow pie
Dairy farmers production and use of Methane gas full of restrictive red tape by big brother PGE
Durham, Butte County -- California is the nation's biggest dairy state, with 2,000 dairies supporting 1.2 million cows. And all those contented bovines produce more than milk. They also generate millions of tons of manure, which foul air, land and water.
Some farmers see that mountain of ordure as more than a stinking heap: It's a gold mine, they say, that could be used to generate electricity from methane gas, reducing the state's reliance on foreign oil and providing power for hundreds of thousands of California homes.
But dairy farmers say there's a problem: Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Rather than encouraging methane-powered electrical generators as other state utilities are doing, critics say, Northern California's largest utility is actively undermining adoption of the technology by burdening farmers with excessive expenses and endless paperwork; that, they say, makes it impossible to get a methane system online in a timely and economical fashion.
"At every step of the way, they try to hit you with new charges, or impose ridiculous metering systems or delay your project," said Leo Langerwerf, whose dairy here near Chico supports 350 milking cows and 450 calves and heifers. "Basically, you can't believe anything they tell you."
Langerwerf, a tall, powerfully built man with an acrid sense of humor and a sharp tongue to match, is in an enviable position compared with most other farmers. His farm has been burning methane to produce electricity since 1982. The contract he has with PG&E requires the utility to buy all his excess power, for which he gets a credit on his electrical bill.
Langerwerf produces about 70 to 85 kilowatts an hour -- enough power to supply about 70 homes. But he says he feels sorry for other farmers who are trying to get hooked up to the PG&E grid because of the enormous costs and hassle involved.
PG&E officials say that the accusation is unfair and that the company is committed to developing renewable sources of energy like methane. Any delays and fees it imposes on methane power generation, they say, are borne out of safety concerns: without proper safeguards, methane-power systems could produce too much power and trip or damage the electrical grid.
Methane digesters, as the systems are known, generate power by burning methane gas produced from manure. The mechanics are relatively simple. First, manure is scraped from barns and dumped into a pit, where it is mixed with water, creating a slurry. The slurry is then piped to another enclosure, typically covered by a huge, expandable plastic bag. Here the mixture is heated, maximizing the release of methane gas. The gas is then piped to an engine where it is burned, driving a generator that produces electricity.
After the slurry has released most of its methane, the solid material is removed and composted. It can either be used as a soil supplement, or dried and employed as livestock bedding. The liquid from the slurry is transferred to a lagoon, where it ultimately is pumped to pastures and croplands as fertilizer.
The technology, which has been around in its current form for at least two decades, provides multiple benefits: It allows farms to end reliance on power from centralized suppliers, feeds excess power into regional grids, and reduces water pollution and methane gas emissions -- a contributor to global warming. Ultimately, its promoters say, methane could provide power for as many as 200,000 homes in the state.
In other areas of the state, said Mark Moser -- whose East Bay company, RCM Digesters, builds methane digesters for large farms -- utilities are promoting the technology. "The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is actively recruiting farmers to build digesters," said Moser. "Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric are supporting it. These utilities see methane as one part of the solution to California's power needs."
But PG&E seems to view it as a threat, Moser said. "Under PUC rules, they have to (use) the power these systems produce, and they don't like that. So they're trying to extinguish the technology."
PG&E impedes methane technology by imposing complex and expensive requirements on farmers who want to hook up methane systems to the utility's grid, Moser said. These include lengthy studies, special meters and prepaid maintenance fees. "They make it complicated and costly," he said. "And when it gets too complicated and too costly, it stops you."
The state's other utilities, Moser said, "typically take about six months to approve a digester. On one (PG&E) project I'm working on, we're at a year (waiting for approval) and still counting. And PG&E will charge that farmer at least $20,000 more than another state utility would charge."
Larry Castelanelli of Castelanelli Brothers Dairy in Lodi is trying to install a methane digester at his farm. He said he's been confounded by the complexity and expense of hooking up the system to PG&E.
"I have to go ahead with this, because I've already spent $200,000," said Castelanelli. "And I don't want to (anger) PG&E -- I have to do business with them. But the time it's taking and the money it's costing really hurts." Ultimately, Castelanelli will spend about $500,000 for the digester and interconnection to PG&E.
PG&E codifies its requirements for methane system hookups in a "handbook" that it compiled under Rule 21 -- a state Public Utilities Commission regulation governing small energy production systems. The problem is that different utilities interpret Rule 21 differently. Among the things PG&E justifies in its Rule 21 "handbook" are expensive studies, charged to the farmers, on connecting digesters to PG&E's system. For example, the cost for the Castelanelli digester study was $7,500.
The handbook, PG&E officials said, reflects state PUC policy on safety. Many of the expenses farmers are concerned about, said PG&E project manager Art McAuley, "are related to protection requirements (specified) in our handbook on safety. The intent is to keep the system's integrity. (Digesters) could produce too much power, trip the system or damage it."
But no other utility requires such pricey studies, said Moser, because redundant safety systems are built into both the digester systems and electrical grids, and methane technology is well understood. "Southern California Edison doesn't require (comparable studies)," he said. "Neither does San Diego Gas and Electric or SMUD. It's just PG&E."
Recently, a state PUC official accused PG&E of misrepresenting company guidelines on methane digesters as PUC policy. In an e-mail to David Ore, a PG&E engineer who implements Rule 21 on methane projects, PUC utilities engineer Anthony Mazy questioned the legitimacy of the "handbook" PG&E used to determine interconnection expenses.
"Given the advantage of PG&E's monopoly status within its authorized service territory, to represent to your customers and interconnection applicants that your handbook constitutes CPUC-authorized requirements or anything actually binding on them, if it is not, might be considered consumer fraud," wrote Mazy, who is part of an Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers working group that sets national standards for small commercial power projects.
PG&E officials have taken strong issue with Mazy's evaluation and maintain they are boosters of alternative energy.
"These comments clearly misrepresent our interconnection policy and our efforts to work with customers, so they can fully understand the process and install their equipment safely and correctly," wrote company spokesman Brian Swanson in an e-mail response to The Chronicle. "This is a disservice to future customers wanting to install (alternative energy) projects."
PG&E officials pointed to the recent successful hookup of a methane digester operated by Marin County dairy farmer Albert Straus, proprietor of the Straus Family Creamery in Marshall.
Kim Whitsel, a PG&E service manager, said that the company had been closely involved with Straus in getting the digester for his 270-cow dairy up and running, and that the project demonstrated the company's commitment to alternative energy sources in general and methane in particular.
"We have hooked up more (alternative energy) systems than anyone in the state," Whitsel said. "That includes methane, but also solar, hydro and wind. We don't discriminate on technologies."
Still, many farmers who have dealt with PG&E remain bitter about the experience. Langerwerf, the Chico-area dairy farmer, says that more than 20 years after his farm began producing power from methane, the utility still balks when the dairy produces more electricity than expected.
"Whenever the amount of electricity we supply PG&E ticks up, we get a call from them," Langerwerf laughed. "They really squawk. 'What are you guys doing out there?' They just hate it that they have to buy power from us.'"
Langerwerf pointed to a large flare belching flames not far from one of his barns. "We have a lot of excess methane that we have to burn off, so I'm putting in a new digester that we'll use just for the farm's power needs," he said. "Then I'll be able to sell all my power from the first system to PG&E."
He paused, and laughed again. "That'll really make them unhappy."
E-mail Glen Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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