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Cow waste as transportation fuel?

June 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Could cow waste power cars? That was the question on the minds of scientists Tuesday in Sacramento at the first National Biomethane Summit, where they discussed harvesting dairy methane as a type of bovine fuel.California's happy cows are already a source for meat and milk. But we may soon be turning to them for transportation fuel too.

Top experts in biomethane met in Sacramento for the first-ever national summit on the topic, talking about taking cow waste, harnessing the methane it emits and turning it into natural gas to power vehicles.

"This is extremely exciting, and this is really a budding industry here in California," said Erik Neandross, Biomethane Summit organizer. "It's just getting started with tremendous potential."

It could be the future for California's ailing dairy farms, which have seen milk prices and profits drop lately.

About a dozen are already trying it in California, with many more interested -- but they can't afford the equipment.

"Costs are extraordinary," said Michael Marsh, Western United Dairymen. "To place a methane digester on a dairy, our average cost is about $1.2 million per installation."

If production costs ever go down, it's a fuel that could take off in demand. Biomethane can power anything that runs on natural gas, like busses.

While biomethane helps reduce California's dependence on foreign oil, it has environmental benefits too. It will help meet the state's aggressive reductions in greenhouse gasses.

Transportation is responsible for nearly 40 percent of emissions that cause global warming.

"Biomethane as a fuel can produce 80 to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to traditional fuels such as gasoline and diesel," said DeeDee D'Adamo, California Air Resources Board member.

The industry isn't quite there yet, but the goal is to make biomethane cheaper than regular gasoline.

And there will have to be a lot more natural gas vehicles on the market to increase demand for this up-and-coming fuel.

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