Dairy Farmers Turn Waste into Renewable Energy

  • Article
  • 3 min read February 25, 2013

When a college biology professor challenged Brett Reinford and his fellow classmates with the assignment to come up with ideas on how to incorporate alternative energy into their lives, he never imagined the impact it would have on his family’s dairy farm and the surrounding community.

“At the time, I’d never thought of applying this to the farm,” Brett Reinford said. “She challenged us to think of ways we can become sustainable in our own lives.”

Fast forward several years later, Reinford’s family farm is now able to create an alternative form of renewable energy he found through his school project – by means of a methane digester.

“I’d heard of solar and wind power as a means of renewable energy, but found out about methane digesters just by searching around the Internet,” Brett Reinford said. “After some initial research, it looked like a good investment for the farm and a way to take it to the next level.”

Like the Reinfords, many other farmers across the county have adopted the use of what’s become known as cow power – or producing energy by processing waste.

How it works: First, rotting fruits and vegetables are ground up with wastes from the farm (including cow manure) and dumped into a 16-foot deep pit and heated. As bacteria breaks down the contents of the digester, it produces a methane gas that is then pumped into a generator, creating heat and renewable energy.

“I think people are excited that we’re actually able to use something that’s being thrown away and use it for energy and heat creation,” Brett Reinford said. “These digesters take something that’s bad for our environment and change it into something that’s good for it.”

The Reinfords are able to sell the power to the local energy company, which is then used to power nearly 100 houses.

“I had no idea something like this would be possible, said Brett’s father, Steve, who began the family farm in 1991. “It’s working out quite well for us.”

The process to install a methane digester on the Reinford farm took nearly three years and roughly $1.1 million, some of which was funded through grant money.

Each week, the Reinfords receive nearly 100 tons of food waste (outdated food no longer eligible for sale in stores) from about 50 Wal-Mart, locations in Pennsylvania and nearby grocery stores – waste that normally would have ended up in landfills.

They also recently received the butter used to create a 1,000 pound butter sculpture that had been on display at an annual state farm show. This helped generate energy for three days.

“We’re always trying to think of ways to use our digester to help our bottom line and the environment,” Brett Reinford said, who said his family's farm is now exploring ways to compress gas generated by the digester to power trucks being used on the farm.

“In today’s day and age, we’re a second generation removed from farming and a lot of people don’t really understand what it takes to operate a farm,” Brett Reinford said. “I think the message that we’re able to send here is that farmers are sustainable and that we are an asset to the environment and our communities.”

This post was originally published February 25, 2013 and updated on December 15, 2015.