How to Use Cow Manure for Sustainable Energy Production

How to Use Cow Manure for Sustainable Energy Production


Cow manure can be a great resource for producing renewable energy and creating a more sustainable future. As concerns grow over climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, cow manure offers an accessible solution for individuals and communities to generate their own green power.

In this article, I will provide an in-depth look at how cow manure can be utilized for energy production. We will cover the following topics:

Overview of Cow Manure as an Energy Source

Methods to Convert Cow Manure into Energy

Building a Cow Manure Energy System

Case Studies and Examples

By the end, you will have an in-depth understanding of how this innovative approach can be put into practice to create renewable energy and support sustainable farming.

Overview of Cow Manure as an Energy Source

Cow manure has considerable potential as an energy source. Each year, a single dairy cow produces enough manure to generate over 200 gallons of renewable biogas. When collected from a dairy farm, this waste product can provide substantial amounts of energy.

There are several key reasons why cow manure is well-suited for sustainable energy production:

Overall, the strengths of cow manure lie in its abundance, renewability, and environmental benefits. With proper planning and equipment, dairy farmers and rural communities can tap into this free, sustainable energy source.

Methods to Convert Cow Manure into Energy

There are three main methods to convert cow manure into usable energy forms:

Anaerobic Digestion for Biogas Production

Anaerobic digestion is the most widely used process for generating energy from manure. In this process, bacteria break down organic matter in manure in an oxygen-free environment. The main outputs are biogas and digestate.

Biogas is primarily comprised of methane and carbon dioxide. As a clean burning gas, methane can be used directly for heating and electricity generation. Typical biogas yields from dairy cow manure are about 20-40 cubic feet per cow per day.

To implement anaerobic digestion with cow manure:

Anaerobic digestion is efficient at extracting energy from manure and producing low emissions. However, it requires a major capital investment and skilled operation.

Using Manure as Fuel for Combustion

Another alternative is to directly combust dry cow manure as a fuel source. The heat released can provide space heating or be converted into electricity.

Key steps when using cow manure for combustion fuel include:

While combustion of manure is a simpler process, it produces more air pollutants than anaerobic digestion. Emissions control systems are recommended to limit the release of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulates.

Converting Manure into Syngas

High temperature gasification can be used to convert dried cow manure into syngas. Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and other trace gases.

The major steps for syngas production are:

The resulting clean syngas can be combusted for energy or even converted into liquid fuels through additional processing. Gasification requires expensive specialized equipment but can provide high energy yields from manure.

Building a Cow Manure Energy System

Implementing a complete manure-to-energy system requires careful planning and investment. Here are some key considerations:

Sizing and Designing the System

Necessary Equipment and Components

Maintenance and Upkeep

Proper sizing, robust equipment selection, and ongoing maintenance are crucial for long-term, trouble-free operation.

Case Studies and Examples

Several dairy farms and communities have successfully implemented cow manure energy projects:

Hilarides Dairy, Lindsay, CA

This large 6,000 cow dairy farm installed a covered lagoon anaerobic digestion system in 2012. Manure is converted into 1.4 MW of electricity, enough to power 1,200 homes. This provides about 15% of the farm's power needs. Excess electricity is sold to the grid. Heat captured from biogas engines is used to warm barns.

"Capturing energy from cow manure has been a win-win for our business and the environment," said owner Tom Hilarides.

Vermont Cow Power Program

Central Vermont Public Service partnered with local farms to launch the Cow Power program in 2004. Today over 12 farms provide electricity for 3,000 households. Farmers feed manure into anaerobic digesters supplied by the utility. Biogas fuels a generator while digestate goes back to the farms.

The Cow Power program has reduced odor issues and provides farmers with extra revenue from energy generation while providing consumers renewable energy options.

Advice from Farmer Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan of Ryan Brothers Farm has operated a 300-kW digester system since 2011.

"The keys for us have been finding the right equipment for our scale, having redundancies built into the system, and not overloading the digester. The biogas output is steady if you balance your inputs and monitor it daily."

Proper sizing, planning, monitoring, and maintenance were vital for long-term success according to Ryan's firsthand experience.


Cow manure can play an important role in renewable energy production. It offers farmers and rural communities a sustainable fuel source. Keys for success include choosing the optimal energy conversion method, properly sizing equipment, investing in robust systems, and ongoing monitoring. With the right approach, cow manure systems can provide reliable green power for decades to come. This opportunity for synergistic agriculture can accelerate our transition to a circular economy.