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Published: Saturday, 12/2/2006

Tapping 'cow power'

FORMATION of a task force in Wood County to look into producing electricity from farm waste is part of a fledgling but promising national trend toward renewable energy sources as alternatives to carbon-based fuels that contribute to global warming.

In this case, the main "bio-mass" fuel would be cow manure, which will be in ample supply - some 40 million gallons a year - as plans advance in the county for major dairy farms with more than 7,000 cows.

The caveat is this: Use of bio-digester technology to convert animal and other agricultural waste into "bio-gas" that in turn would be used to generate electricity won't eliminate all the environmental hazards created by so-called factory farms. It could, however, ameliorate some of the problems.

These include odor, flies, and disease-causing pathogens inherent in mega-farm operations, which threaten the environment and have aroused intense public opposition in Wood County and elsewhere.

Agricultural experts say that decomposition of manure in anaerobic digester systems reduces odor by up to 97 percent, while destruction of the organic content limits fly propagation.

At the same time, the process kills more than 90 percent of pathogens, like E. coli, and the residue contains a high mineralized concentration of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that can be used as fertilizer and compost.

Generation of electricity, using the methane-rich gas that is a byproduct, is a bonus. Efficient digesters can produce at least two to three times the energy needed to power a farm, according to the Michigan State University Extension Service, and the excess can be sold to utilities.

The technology is not new, but credit goes to state Sen. Randy Gardner, of Bowling Green, Joe Hirzel, of Hirzel Canning Co., and Wood County Commissioner Tim Brown for initiating the task force that will promote its use locally.

Bowling Green, largely through the efforts of Daryl Stockburger, its former utilities director, already has made its mark in the alternative-energy realm with installation of four huge wind turbines, visible from I-75, that churn out power for the city and its partner communities.

In Ohio, some three-quarters of all electric power is generated from the burning of coal, a paradigm that must change in order to curb greenhouse-gas pollution of the atmosphere that threatens the environment.

And innovative and effective methods for disposal of agricultural wastes must be employed if the low-cost food production we've come to enjoy is to co-exist safely and comfortably with the growing exurban population.

Tapping the natural - and virtually inexhaustable - power of dairy cattle won't eliminate these twin problems, but it could lead to solutions that will make life better for all in Wood County.

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