Cliff and Andrea Sensenig’s 100-cow dairy operation in Kirkwood, Pennsylvania.

Pure poop power

Innovative renewable energy system reduces emissions and cuts costs

Waste not, want not–that's how the saying goes. Land O’Lakes, Inc. dairy member-owners Cliff and Andrea Sensenig certainly took this to heart as they set out to cut costs, increase sustainability and create a new revenue stream for their farm near Kirkwood, Pennsylvania.

“Our farm was not doing well and we were looking for a way to save our farm and keep it operational,” says Andrea.

So they decided to take a creative approach—manure. That’s right, manure —specifically for power.

The couple looked into building an anaerobic digester. This technology captures manure's methane by breaking down biodegradable material in oxygen-free environments. Simply put, it helps turn manure into renewable energy. But there was a catch. Digesters typically aren’t practical for smaller operations, and the Sensenigs’ herd of 100 cows wouldn't produce enough manure to provide the necessary return on their investment.

So they combined the waste from their dairy with food waste from the community and the manure from cows, hogs and chickens from three neighboring farms.

Mixing manure from different animals in the same methane digester was a new challenge, one that required extensive planning and engineering to develop an appropriate pipeline system. By involving neighboring farms and the wider community in the planning process, the Sensenigs were able to gather funds and gain permission to build the pipeline underneath neighbors' properties.

“We're taking a lot of manure trucks and tankers and tractors off the road,” says Andrea. “The food waste comes from large chain grocery stores, which, if it wasn’t added to the manure in our digester, would be added to landfills. What we’re doing is landfill diversion.”

Waste not

So far, the digester has been a success. The innovative effort even earned the Sensenigs the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy's 2014 Sustainability Award for delivering economic, environmental and social benefits while advancing sustainability of the dairy industry.

They reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 206 cars from the road a year. It also created cost savings by generating more than three times the amount of electricity the Sensenigs’ farm needs. In fact, the digester produces enough energy to power three farms and still sell excess energy back to the grid.

“We’re producing enough electricity to power this farm and 140 additional homes,” says Cliff. “The system’s working. It’s exceeded our expectations.”