From Food to Fuel

By Toni Waterman


May 30, 2012

RUTLAND, Mass. — When Randy Jordan was in high school, his family’s dairy farm was one of 640 in the state. Now, a generation later, there are only 200 still operating in Massachusetts.
“Farmers aren’t going out of business because they're dying or — geesh, there’s better opportunities. They’re going out of business because they can’t afford to stay in business,” said Jordan.
Jordan said one of his biggest budget busters was his electric bill: $2,400 a month to keep his 300 cows milked and his 1,000 acres of corn and hay growing. He had to cut costs. And his cows were the answer.
“The average cow poops about 18 gallons of manure and pee a day — a lot!” said Jordan. “And there’s nothing but methane in it.”
The cow as energy source
Methane gas has huge energy potential. So 2 years ago, Jordan partnered with Shannon Carroll of AGreen Energy to build the state’s first facility that converts food waste and manure into electricity.


The process starts in Jordan’s barn with the cows doing, well, their thing.
“We have a slotted barn so it automatically falls down into the manure pit under the barn and from there we pump it into the digester,” said Carroll.

Then comes the second ingredient: organic waste — things like fruit rinds and eggshells. Big tankers truck in thousands of gallons of waste a day.
“One of our customers is Cains. They make salad dressing and mayonnaise. We get all of their waste products. Hood is another customer, so we get liquid ice cream,” said Carroll.
But it’s inside a 500,000-gallon digestion tank that the real magic happens. Bacteria eat at the manure and food waste mixture. As it rots, methane gas is released. Then it’s converted into electricity.
“We get enough gas out of this system to run a 300-kilowatt engine, which is basically producing electricity for the farm as well as about 300 houses,” said Carroll.
Simpler than it sounds?
Europeans have been turning table scraps into fuel for years. Go over to Europe and you’d see more than 10,000 food-to-fuel facilities. But currently Jordan’s farm is the only licensed farm in the U.S. that can take food scraps and manure, mix it all together and spit out energy.
“This is not that complicated,” said former energy secretary Ian Bowles. He says the food-to-fuel trend is quickly making its way here, and by 2014, it could become mandatory for large businesses like colleges and restaurants to compost their organic waste.
“You just have to build the infrastructure over time,” he said. “But it would essentially be a fourth bin: You’ve got your true waste, your recycling, your yard waste and then your food waste.” 
Bowles said composting would free up some much-needed space: Of the several hundred landfills opened a couple decades ago, only a dozen are left. “We export a lot of our waste at a great cost out to other states that sometimes don’t have as good of landfills as we do here,” said Bowles. “So our costs are rising. This is really a solution.”
Jordan said the digestion facility was his solution — and it's given him one more way to keep his farm up and running.
“That’s my ‘cash cow’ other than milk," he said. "It’s our retirement. I feel more comfortable when I go to bed at night.”

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH Science updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor