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Generating renewable energy down on the farm

John Noble, a sixth generation dairy farmer, got his first taste of the benefits of biogas about a decade ago, when he installed a small system on his Wyoming County farm.

Now, Noble and a host of investors, including a handful of local farm families, are getting into biogas in a big way.

Synergy Biogas, an entity owned by Florida-based renewable energy company CH4 Biogas, last week took the wraps off its new biogas power project, located on the 1,850-cow dairy farm that Synergy owns in Wyoming County.

It is the biggest biogas project located on a farm in New York and can take in up to 425 tons of manure and food waste each day and can generate up to 10,000 megawatt-hours of renewable energy in return -- enough to power 1,000 homes.

Noble, Synergy Dairy's president and chief executive officer, said he expects the project will help reduce the farm's operating costs, while also helping solve its waste management issues in a more environmentally friendly way. The electricity the 1.4-megawatt biogas plant generates is sold into the state's wholesale power market.

Noble said he saw the potential of biogas years ago, after installing a 135-kilowatt biogas digester on his own family's farm. "We got some experience with it and saw how it can be a win-win," he said.

The biogas plant takes manure from the dairy farm and mixes it with food waste from companies such as Kraft Foods and Wegmans, as well as local bakeries, said Lauren Toretta, CH4 Biogas' vice president. The waste is mixed in a 120,000-gallon digester, producing gas that is used to power a biogas engine that can generate up to 1.4 megawatts of electricity.

"We're proving one farmer's trash in another person's electricity," said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., during a grand opening ceremony last week.

Beyond being a new source of renewable electricity, the biogas plant cuts the amount of food waste going into landfills and reduces the 8,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the dairy farm -- the greenhouse gas equivalent of 1,700 automobiles. It also yields an estimated 17,500 cubic yards of bedding material for the farm's livestock.

"It's a quantum leap forward in environmental sustainability for New York dairy farms," said Daniel Aubertine, the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Francis Murray, the president and chief executive officer of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said there's plenty of potential for biogas plants to be built across the state. The state's dairy farms produce enough manure to fuel biogas plants with a capacity to power as many as 900,000 homes and could reduce the New York dairy industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.

But biogas plants, like the Synergy facility, aren't economically viable without millions in subsidies. The Synergy Biogas plant received more than $4.5 million in incentives -- including $2.8 million in federal investment tax credits, $1 million in aid from NYSERDA and $750,000 from National Grid to build a new substation at the site.

"We're talking about the future here, and that requires government support," Murray said.

While farm-based biogas projects are well-established in Europe, they're much less common in the United States. The Synergy Biogas project will provide the opportunity to showcase the potential of biogas facilities and also monitor their efficiency and effectiveness, said Curt Gooch, a Cornell University researcher.

"It's the early days with these technologies, but it's partnerships like this that will stimulate future growth," said Ken Daly, National Grid's New York president.

Researchers, over the next 18 months, will monitor the plant's effectiveness in converting manure and food waste into biogas, and how good a job it does at turning that gas into electricity. They also will track the impact the plant has on the farm's carbon footprint, he said.

Noble estimates that the biogas project will reduce the dairy farm's operating costs by $80,000 to $100,000 a year.

"This is a real, live project," Noble said. "It is the next step in trying to be good stewards of the land."