AGE promotes 'cow power' AD business model

By Matt Soberg | October 12, 2011

As part of the panel “Leveraging Wastewater and Manure Streams for Energy Production” at BBI International’s Northeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show Oct. 11-13 in Pittsburgh, presenters discussed how anaerobic digestion (AD) is catching on in the Northeast as more industry professionals realize its benefits.  

Advancing the renewable energy industry at a time when initiatives are not yet developed in the U.S. seemed to be the overarching theme of the panel. “We are pioneers of the future of renewable energy services,” said Thomas Kavookjian, director of technical services for JSH International, a company that provides peat-based additives to facilitate the AD process. 

Bill Jorgenson, managing partner at AGreen Energy LLC (AGE), said capital investors who believe in the direction of green energy are needed in order to advance projects. AGE is a farmer-owned company that installs anaerobic digesters to process animal waste, and was formed to bring advanced nutrient management, renewable energy and water technologies to small- and medium-sized farms. 

Creating an innovative business model from what he calls “cow power,” Jorgenson said their business is to sustain family farms in a way that helps the environment. Massachusetts-based AGE was formed five years ago under Jorgenson’s leadership. AGE has an operating digester in Rutland, Mass., with four more scheduled for construction in 2012. 

The dairy farms involved in AGE’s business model were hand-picked by Jorgenson due to their ability to embrace new technologies and the need to be financially sustainable. 

Although AD is a great way to enhance farmer’s incomes, the upfront costs can be intimidating. “When a digester costs $3 million and a farmer of 300 cattle grosses $1.5 million in annual revenue, a digester is not economically feasible,” Jorgenson said.   

Manure streams provide excellent feedstock for anaerobic digesters, and to take advantage of the benefits, AGE collaborated with utilities, banks and policymakers to make the project work for all involved. “The people with money are starting to understand the need to finance renewable energy,” Jorgenson said. AGE has also partnered with state government agencies to enact renewable energy policy that is compatible with the company’s business model.   

AGE’s system produces 43 million cubic feet of methane and 2.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The majority of the electricity produced, 91 percent, will go to the local utility, while the remainder will be used by the dairy operations. In addition to providing the farm’s power needs, AGE intends to install greenhouse facilities, powered by the waste heat produced by the digester, where vegetables can be grown and provided to local schools. 

Feeding the digester will be a combination of cow manure and organic waste from food companies contracted by AGE. “The digesters will run on just about anything organic from grass to spent Coca-Cola,” according to Jorgenson, and “If we can’t get anything else, we will just mow the grass.”