'We are making electricity:' Dairy farmer making power from cow manure

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The Werkhoven Dairy near Monroe, Wash. has been turning cow manure into cow power for nearly a decade, producing enough electricity for nearly 300 homes and then some. (Photo: KOMO News)

NEAR MONROE, Wash. - Recycling at Werkhoven Dairy near Monroe takes on a whole new meaning when you have more than 3,000 cows that generate an average of 65 pounds of poop a day.

They’ve been turning cow manure into cow power for nearly a decade, producing enough electricity for nearly 300 homes and then some.

Dairies and cattle farms across the country have been installing biogas plants to capture the methane, found naturally in cow manure, into a usable fuel to power a generator which then sends electricity into a neighborhood grid.

But, the Pacific Northwest is awash in cheap energy with its abundance of hydro-electric plants. It resulted in some of the cheapest wholesale power rates in the country.

While cow power is a win-win on so many levels for farmers, the public and air quality, it hasn’t proven to be a windfall for the Werkhoven Dairy, but they are ok with that.

“Unfortunately the wholesale power rate is insufficient to do that,” said second generation dairyman Jim Werkhoven. “It would probably have to be more than double to be honest with you.”

The farm also takes in substrate such as blood from local slaughter houses and organic matter from food processes to be mixed into a slurry of manure that’s fed into a digester. At the Werkhoven Dairy, their digester is a 1.5 million gallon insulated, 18-feet-deep concrete box that’s heated to 100 degrees.

After the bacteria and microbes have done their job, the top two feet of digester is nothing but usable methane. It's then siphoned off and used as a biofuel for a massive generator, currently producing 450 kilowatts of electricity, that’s sold to Snohomish County PUD.

“Well, we are making electricity, you know we are not always making a lot of money,” said Werkhoven.

The family farm has formed a non-profit co-op with the Tulalip Tribe, which owns the land where the digester and power plant sit.

Werkhoven said the cow power plant pays for itself and produces high-grade liquid fertilizer, which would have been an expense for the dairy.

His family has found dealing with the restrictions needed to get a renewable tax credit have not proven to be valuable, and are a distraction from the family business of running a dairy.

But, what’s more important to Werkhoven is the legacy the plant represents for the next generation for his family and tribal families.

“Honestly, it feels very good to a part of something that's bigger than me,” he said.

“There’s a saying, 'society grows great where old men plant trees who's shade they will never endure,'" said the proud dairyman and cow power producer. “I think there's a little bit of that, that’s going on here.”