The Octagon

“Imagine a vat of liquid cow manure covering the area of five football fields and 33 feet deep,” Reuters tells us. “Meet California’s most alternative new energy.”

[Image: Photo via Reuters].

You’ve no doubt seen this elsewhere by now in our internet-flattened world, but this geometrized pool of cow manure will “provide the natural gas needed to power 1,200 homes a day.”

To tap the renewable gas from cow manure, the Vintage Dairy farm first flushes manure into a large, octagonal pit, where it becomes about 99 percent water. It is then pumped into a covered lagoon, first passing through a screen that filters out large solids that eventually become the cows’ bedding.

The covered lagoon, or “digester,” is the size of nearly five football fields and about 33 feet deep. It is lined with plastic to protect the ground water and the cover, made of high density polyethylene, is held down at the edges by concrete.

Vast octagonal lagoons of cow crap festering in the California heat.
As one of the companies involved, BioEnergy Solutions, explains it: “We capture the methane released as livestock waste decomposes, then ‘scrub’ it to create clean, renewable natural gas that is delivered to power plants. The process can reduce methane emissions by up to 70%, or an estimated 1,500 tons per year, on a 5,000-cow dairy farm.”

[Image: Photo courtesy of American Images, Marshfield, WI, via CNET News].

Of course, news like this has been coming out for years now – for instance, in this story about Californian farmer Albert Straus and his “poop-filled lagoon”:

In addition to the energy savings, Straus’ new methane digester [the “lagoon”] will eliminate tons of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and strip 80 to 99 percent of organic pollutants from the wastewater generated from his family’s 63-year-old dairy farm. Heat from the generator warms thousands of gallons of water that may be used to clean farm facilities and to heat the manure lagoon. And wastewater left over after the methane is extracted, greatly deodorized, is used for fertilizing the farm’s fields.

Meanwhile, complete with photographs, CNET News introduced us to “industrial-sized ‘digesters’ that, through heat and microbes, reduce mountains of waste into gas or electricity that can be reused on the farm or sold on the open market” – and USA Today explained how, “at a time when state and federal energy bills have called for increasing renewable energy sources, there is more focus on developing cow dung as an alternative to coal or natural gas.”
In any case, I’m wondering what effects the cow poo boom will have on civic infrastructure – and even if human sewage might someday be tapped for its decompositional energy potential.
What strange new world of plumbing awaits us on the alternative energy horizon? How might it reshape the urban landscape?

(Thanks, Michael G.!)

8 thoughts on “The Octagon”

  1. Every time I hear someone on the radio or TV talk about ethanol and renewable energy, my mind casts back to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Master/Blaster and their methane producing pigs. I have been waiting to hear about someone doing this.

    As for the last comment, I say bring it on. If they can make it feasible to recycle human waste for the purposes of power generation, I say more power too them.

  2. I had to visit a biogas plant for a class on energy tech last year. It was really incredible, because the entire operation was so local.

    The farmer who ran it had a small herd of cows and a couple of wheat fields. The cows produced the manure, and the farmer used his wheat to feed them and also to add into the silos. He explained that that way, you can add a lot more strains of methane-producing bacteria to the mix, which is more efficient.

    As he stood there in his coveralls and rubber boots talking about trying out various mixtures and temperatures to produce the highest-quality methane in the largest quantities, I had this odd feeling that he was just as obssessed with his biogas as vintners are with their wine. And every bit as technical about it too.

    I wondered if the natural gas he was brewing up had a distinct terroir…

  3. I work for Sydney Water, a water utility in Australia which aims to become carbon neutral by 2020. One of the ways they are going about this is to harness the methane/biogas from their sewage treatment plants. At the moment they have 3 plants that cogenerate power produced from anerobic digestion of sewage and there are plans for 5 more. The cogenerators online now are/will be able to produce enough energy to meet a third of the plants needs.

  4. all i can think about when i read stuff like this is Dune and the distillation suits.

    the future’s so bright you gotta wear nose plugs.

  5. In Vermont, the power company has actually trademarked the term “CVPS Cow Power” and are building the same methane digesters. But instead of cleaning the methane and sending out gas, the methane actually powers a generator linked to the grid so the farmers are exporting electricity. The project just needs to become scalable so that smaller farms can have their own self-sustaining set-up.

  6. Digester gas has been used in sewage treatment plants for decades. It is definitely not new technology although it is getting more efficient each year. What amazes me is that more communities don’t use. Check out the Water Environment Federation ( for more information.

  7. Actually here in france it’s used in waste water treatment facilities for up to 1/3 of the human waste water produced in the country.
    As somebody already pointed out it’s not new technology but it’s good that people are now thinking of using it.

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