MERCED, Calif. (KGO) -- At Vander Woude Dairy near Merced, California, thousands of cows are doing what cows do, giving milk, eating feed, and creating methane. The greenhouse gas is a bi-product of the manure they leave behind.
But if that manure is generating more enthusiasm than you might normally expect, it's because of a mound a few hundred yards away. It's part of an expanding methane capture project developed by PG&E, California Energy Exchange, and Maas Energy.
"Manure into energy, poop into power whatever you want to call it. It's, you know, at this renewable energy program," says Eileen Martinho of MAAS Energy.
The company helped develop a network of underground pipelines through swatches of the Central Valley. The goal is to connect dairies in the area to energy suppliers like PG&E.
"Each dairy has a digester on their facility. And they are sending methane gas from their digester," Martinho explains.
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The methane is recovered under the giant tarp-covered digester mound and pumped through purifiers before it's turned into what's known as RNG, or renewable natural gas.
While there is plenty of raw source material literally underfoot, the challenge has been finding a cost-effective way to separate and transport the methane.
"So this is our first project and it was really hard to go from where the location of manure was to our pipelines. That's why the partnership was so critical," says Janisse Quiñones, PG&E's senior vice president of gas engineering.
Four dairies have gone online since December, with a goal of adding roughly a dozen more.
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Planners are hoping to provide economic benefits to both the dairies and surrounding communities in the form of jobs.
Dairyman Alex DeJager recently signed on.
"It feels good. You know, the basic selling gas and making energy with what we do every day is just a plus to our business," says DeJager
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As the system expands, there's also hope for significant environmental benefits. Dairies are currently one of the largest producers of methane in California. Planners say capturing a percentage of that greenhouse gas would have a significant impact in the fight against climate change.
With the pollution tradeoff of one car taken off the road for a year, for each cow in the program.
"As we build out this entire project, we're going to have about 80,000 cows contributing to this project," says Martinho.
And hopefully contributing far less greenhouse gas into the environment.
PG&E is hoping that as the project grows, it might eventually contribute something in the range of 10 to 15% of Renewable Natural Gas Production.