Dickinson College plans to break ground this fall on a $1.5 million project to turn cow manure and food waste into a biogas to generate electricity.
Since 2015, the College Farm has been using a pilot-scale bio-digester to process waste into methane for cooking and heating, said Matt Steiman, energy and livestock projects manager.
“We realized back in 2018 that we were making more biogas than we needed,” he said. “We were really only scratching the surface over how much waste we could process.”
The college conducted a feasibility study that recommended the current project to develop an automated commercial-scale bio-digester on the College Farm.
Dickinson College owns two farms outside Boiling Springs in South Middleton Township. The College Farm raises organic produce and grass-fed livestock and provides a hands-on laboratory setting for a variety of educational programs.
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The adjoining Triple L Dairy Farm is a property the college rents to a family that raises about 150 head of dairy cattle. The plan is take manure from the cows and combine that with all the food waste generated by Dickinson College, Steiman said. The college will need at least two tons of food waste per day to sustain the larger, around-the-clock commercial-level operation, he said.
The college has already reached out to such community partners as Project SHARE and Carlisle Area School District for their food waste. There is an agreement with the Molly Pitcher Brewing Co. to process spent grain.
Partners in waste
Dickinson College is looking for other partners interested in supplying food waste to the bio-digester operation. Examples of sources include food processing plants, grocery stores and large restaurants, Steiman said. For more information, contact him at [email protected]
The commercial-level bio-digester could produce enough biogas to generate 200,000 to 300,000 kilowatts of renewable electricity per year, Steiman said.
That could power not only the College Farm, but a planned Farm Lab education facility. Any surplus could be sold to Met-Ed, a Pennsylvania-based power company.
First thought of in 2020, the goal is to have the commercial bio-digester operational by early summer 2023, Steiman said. “The permitting and fundraising has taken longer than anticipated. The engineering is just about done. The next step is a final review by the county.”
The U.S. Department of Agricultural must also review the plans before the project is released for competitive bidding.
Steiman explained the multistep process involved in turning food waste and cow manure into electricity. First, the waste is mixed with water and placed in a warm, airtight tank. There, microbes in the waste use fermentation to convert complex organic molecules into simpler ones.
This process produces methane gas that can power an engine to produce electricity and a solid called digestate that can be used as a crop fertilizer.
The commercial-scale bio-digester costs about $500,000 and will use a package of components imported from Belgium, Steiman said. “Our installing dealer is a company called Nutrient Control Systems from Chambersburg. They have many years of experience.”
The project will include the construction of a new barn on the Triple L Dairy Farm to better manage the manure produced by the dairy herd. The current barn is outdated with concerns about nutrient pollution into Yellow Breeches Creek, Steiman said.
Between internal funds and alumni donations, Dickinson College is putting in about $100,000 of the estimated $1.5 million in project costs, he said. “The rest is through federal, state or foundation grants.
“Our project will be a showcase for dairy farms in our region,” Steiman said. The technology could benefit about 5,000 dairy operations in Pennsylvania. “We’ll serve as a resource for other midsize farms with an interest in commercial biogas digestion systems.”
Anaerobic digestion systems present multiple opportunities for farms to improve their local environment, Steiman said. Not only can responsible manure management reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in waterways and groundwater, the renewable energy generated by the biogas system is carbon neutral and can directly replace fossil fuel energy sources, he said.
Cumberland County recently received a $384,529 recycling grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, county Recycling Coordinator Justin Miller said.
This grant includes about $60,000 for a food waste chopper that will be used to support the commercial-scale bio-digester at the College Farm.
Joseph Cress is a reporter for The Sentinel covering education and history. You can reach him at [email protected] or by calling 717-218-0022.