Visalia tech converts dairy air into low-emission fuel

Reggie Ellis

California Bioenergy successfully converts manure into renewable natural gas for heavy duty trucks, busses, and eventually tractors

VISALIA – A Visalia company has successfully converted cow manure into a renewable natural gas.

California Bioenergy, LLC (CalBio), based in Visalia, announced on Sept. 24 it had successfully achieved the first renewable natural gas (RNG) production from manure stored at dairy farms in Kern County.

“This technology will de-carbonize transportation fuels in the state,” CalBio CEO N. Russ Buckenham said. “When you run a heavy duty truck on RNG, it’s 90% cleaner than running that truck on diesel. And there are a lot of diesel trucks running up and down Highway 99. It’s a terrific benefit to cleaning the air and cleaning the sky.”

Manure stored on dairy farms results in the release of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, which causes the Earth’s atmosphere to trap in heat, a major component of climate change. The biomethane projects capture the methane into digesters, which works similar to your stomach, to convert solids into gas. The biogas is then sent to a centralized processing facility where it will be refined into RNG and injected into local utility SoCalGas’ pipeline. The RNG is then marketed as an alternative fuel for heavy-duty trucks and buses, and eventually off-road and farm equipment.

CalBio in Visalia uses this facility in Kern County to refine biomethane capture from cow manure into a viable, renewable fuel for heavy duty trucks. A similar project is underway in Visalia to generate renewable natural gas that is 90% cleaner than diesel. Courtesy of California Bioenergy LLC

In the joint venture between CalBio, Chevron and dairy farmers, the Visalia company brought technology and operational experience to help build digesters and methane capture projects to convert this methane to a beneficial use as RNG. Chevron provided funding for digester projects across three geographic clusters in Kern, Tulare and Kings counties in additional to money invested by the dairies. As they are completed, these projects will mitigate the dairies’ methane emissions and reduce greenhouse emissions from livestock. Also last month, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved an underground pipeling connecting a dairy cluster in north Visalia with Southern California Gas Company’s (SoCalGas) utility pipeline. The clusters of digesters have been awarded California Department of Food and Agriculture grants, which must be augmented with additional capital to complete the projects.

Last month’s announcement marks a significant milestone for CalBio, which has been at the technological forefront of converting dairy waste into renewable fuel since 2006. That’s when Buckenham, a technology engineer, partnered with Neil Black, a leader in environmental sustainability, to begin developing biodigester technologies for dairies. In 2013, CalBio launched the largest dairy digester in the state near Bakersfield in Kern County, the first project attempting to make the technology viable on a commercial scale.

Most of California’s large dairies are making plans to install digesters to capture biogas from their cow manure but are looking for a cleaner way to utilize this fuel. Biogas captured from cow manure contains approximately 65% methane, which has a 25 times greater impact on global warming than CO2 emissions and accounts for 105 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but is also a useful, renewable fuel. CalBio is directly involved in half of the 123 dairy digester projects in operation or development across the state. Ninety-four percent of those projects are at San Joaquin Valley dairies, 55 of which are in Tulare County. According to DairyCares.com, a single cow can generate enough renewable fuel to drive a car across the country. Five cows are enough to power a house for an entire year.

“These projects bring so many win-wins—they help create local jobs, improve local air quality by producing renewable natural gas for use in low-NOX emission fleets, and reduce dairy methane emissions,” Buckenham said.

CalBioGas began the joint venture with Chevron last summer when it secured funding from the energy company to build infrastructure for dairy biomethane projects in California’s San Joaquin Valley, adding to the investment from dozens of dairy farmers. Chevron will also provide services to bring this product into the California vehicle fuels market.

Andy Walz, president of Chevron Americas Products, said the milestone demonstrates the company’s effort to increase renewables and to invest in lower-carbon technologies.

“This is an exciting milestone that speaks to the capabilities and can-do attitude of our partners—CalBio and dairy farmers—to bring this RNG to the California vehicle fuels market,” Walz said. “Chevron is increasing RNG in support of our business and is making targeted investments and establishing partnerships, as we evaluate many emerging sources of energy and the role they will play in our portfolio. And as a proud California company, we are pleased that local communities in the state will benefit from this investment.”

CalBio is a leading developer of dairy digesters for generating renewable electricity and vehicle fuel in California. Founded in 2006, CalBio has worked closely with the dairy industry and state agencies to develop programs to help the state achieve its methane reduction goals while delivering a new revenue source to California dairies. For more information, visit: www.calbioenergy.com.

Chevron U.S.A. Inc. is a subsidiary of Chevron Corporation, one of the world’s leading integrated energy companies and is based in San Ramon, Calif. More information about Chevron is available at www.chevron.com.

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