Tag Archives: feedback loop

Green Is Good But Sustainability Is Systemic

8 Apr

I don’t talk about sustainability enough on this blog.  The rub of having your masters in sustainability and opening a green business in a city brimming with eco-stewards is that you get all talked out at a certain point.  When you finally do sit sit down to blog, you want to talk about anything else.  This space has become an outlet for all the stuff I love but don’t get to talk about all day:  running and food!

“I feel like I need to commit more time to talk about green living.”

I hate that I even typed that.  What I mean is: I need to commit more time to talk about going beyond green living, into real sustainability.  By no means am I looking down on people who are into green living or use that phrase.  Green is good…great even.  I wish everyone would embrace green lifestyle choices and for the most part, people are pretty happy to jump on the good karma band wagon.  BUT.  And I don’t want to sound pompous when I say this, BUT…to me, the phrase green living has very little meaning.  The phrase itself doesn’t demand self-awareness.  It seems so passive, almost implying that we simply go through our lives and buy products labeled “green” or “eco-friendly” and recycle when it’s convenient and then bask in the awesomeness of our green living.  Understanding sustainability requires us to look beyond packaging and promotions and marketing and our own behaviors/attitudes; it requires us to consider things like social equity and our waste streams and broader systemic implications than just our purchases.  It requires us to think and ask questions and demand answers and improve.  It requires us to walk the walk.  In that spirit, I plan on having more of those conversations in this space.  🙂


We are smack dab in the middle of what I like to call “crunch time” at the new house.  We’ve got an appraisal coming up so we need to make sure that the remodel is 100% completed by early next week.  It has really been a struggle to find some kind of balance, but with or without balance this train isn’t slowing down!  I have started to think beyond what is happening now, trying to plan how I will tackle my new enormous yard.  I have so many ideas, but it’s challenging for me to figure out which ones are realistic based on my level of experience and the fact that I have 2 oaf-ish dogs.I grew up in a small house nestled smack dab in the middle of an acre of land in the suburbs.  I am used to having air to breathe, trees, and room to wander.  For the last 5 years, I’ve had to leave my house to find any of those things, but that is about to change in a big way (see below)!  I mean, if the zoning requirements were different in this borough I could have an self-sufficient farmette with the yard we are moving into.  They don’t allow that in West Homestead however, and green my thumb is not.


our yard now..

photo 4(2)

our new yard…

Before May, my goal is to have a recycling center set up, an herb garden planted, a vegetable garden prepped, some kind of rain harvesting set up, and I will make a composter.  Ambitious, no?

The sky is really the limit as far as composting options go, but after a series of trails and errors I have a general idea of what I want.

I don’t think I’m ready for something quite this permanent yet, but ideally this is what I would like to work up to once I know how I want the yard set up:

To begin, I think I like the one below because it seems like it would be easy for someone with very little interest in using a shovel, rake, or biceps.

If I’m unable to get any cooperation from Christina, I may end up with something a little less fancy like this:

I’m shocked at how much less garbage we put out each week when our kitchen scraps get diverted to make compost!  It’s a gratifying feeling when you make something productive {fertilizer} from literal garbage without spending much money.  Composting is one of the simplest examples of a feedback loop.  We have an endless supply of food waste, which will eventually become an endless supply of fertilizer, which will eventually become an endless supply of vegetables, which then turn back into food waste.  That simple model is at the core of sustainability:  consider how a system works, analyze factors that effect it, and then find a way to close the loop/act on the process to get a beneficial outcome.


Do you compost?

What kind of system works for you?


Profits From Poop?

22 May

So you want to talk sustainability?  I work in an industry that’s the shits.  Literally!  I own a cloth diaper service.  Which got me thinking how to turn waste into profits.  Central Vermont has developed a community-wide cooperative program which captures methane gas from cow manure and produces energy from it!  I know of some farms close to Indiana, PA which use Cow Power to provide electricity to the farm buildings, however the CVPS Cow Power Program actually creates enough energy to contribute to the energy grid.

Pretty neat stuff and I think it work well in Western Pennsylvania.  (PS – you can make fertilizer from human waste, called humanure, but we’ll save that for a different day!)

So, here’s my spiel..

Developing a strategy at the state-level to incentivize renewable energies is one political planning strategy which benefits individuals, the environment, and the greater public.  Using a case study on the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation’s Cow Power program, renewable energy production at the local level will be evaluated.  First, the organization of the CVPS Cow Power program are explained, followed by a discussion regarding the benefits of the program.  The results of a five-scenario analysis are examined and applied to public policy.  As the five-scenario analysis shows, there is potential for successful implementation of renewable energy at the state-level; it needs only to be invested in through federal incentives and grants.  Several lessons can be learned from the Cow Power case study, including the need for further research.  More importantly, it is clear that with properly focused funding, renewable energies can be produced at the micro-level scale; this type of investment strengthens local economies and has significant environmental benefits.  More specifically, the Cow Power program is a strategic way that state-funded programs can lower greenhouse gas emissions on a macro-level scale.

                How Cow Power Works

The Central Vermont Public Service Corporation developed an idea for renewable energy generation from cow manure.  The manure is collected at Vermont dairy farms by participating farmers and loaded into a methane digester; this digester holds the manure for twenty-one days at a constant 100° Fahrenheit1.  As the methane gas builds inside the digester, it creates pressure which pushes the gas into a combustion engine, where electricity is created and sold to the CVPS electrical grid system.

There are currently six dairy farms participating in the Cow Power Program, all of which have over 500 cows3.  Five hundred cows can produce up to 15,000 gallons of manure a day.  This manure is eventually translated into physical electricity, but eventually breaks down into a solid and liquid product.  The solid product is similar to sawdust and can be used for animal bedding, while the liquid product is used as an odorless, pathogen-free fertilizer that can be used to spray fields.  Energy that would normally be wasted during the generation process is captured, and used locally on the farm (perhaps heating water for the barns, or for electricity).  The monetary profits along with savings in the form of self-sufficiency are two primary benefits of this program.

A family farm that participates in the Cow Power program.
You can see the methane digester behind them.

The Cow Power Program is mutually beneficial for local dairy farmers and for the community in which the farm is located.  Cow Power systems have prevented 45,000 tons of farm methane3, which is a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide,  from being released into the atmosphere.  The neighbors of each dairy farm are also rewarded by the decline of odors associated with farming and improvements of water quality in the region.  Methane-generated electricity is produced locally, creating a cycle where local energy is paid for by local residents, who consume the electricity locally.  This cycle strengthens and boosts the local economy, maintains diversity in the regional landscape, and prevents the creation of eyesores like wind turbines or solar farms.  The community, in turn, supports the Cow Power program by volunteering to pay for their electricity at a premium price (in Vermont, customers can opt into the program at 35%, 50% or 100%).  Consumers pay the market value for electricity in addition to a $0.04 surcharge per kilowatt-hour3.

The program has been so successful that in 3009, over 4,000 consumers demanded more Cow Power  than what the six functioning farms were able to produce (which was between 750,000-800,000)3.  In times where demand exceeds supply, the CVPS provides customers with renewable energy by using the excess money collected from the electricity premiums.

The Potential of Micro-Level Renewable Energy Programs

                The potential of micro-level energy programs is extremely valuable and as authors like Thomas Friedman propose, a catalyst.2  The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that programs like Cow Power could generate 1 quad (equivalent to 8 billion gallons of gasoline) of renewable energy every year3.  Another benefit is that farms can cut down on spending by capturing wasted energy from electricity producing and using it onsite; by creating animal bedding through the methane digester; by producing an odorless liquid fertilizer; by creating regional partnerships where other dairy farms can dispose of waste like whey.

For each year that the CVPS Cow Power Program remains successful and profitable, lenders become more likely to invest in farms.  In the CVPS example, the longevity of the program allows participants to better understand the life-cycle of the equipment and also to improve on the efficiency of the equipment.  Based on the cost-return analysis performed in the Cow Power case study, it would also appear that each year the demand for renewable energy increases.  Even if there are not even Cow Power participants to meet the renewable energy demand, the increased desire for renewable energy causes municipalities to rely more heavily on REC credits.

 Challenges of Renewable Energy Production

There are two challenges that the Cow Power program (and other programs that produce renewable energy) will have to overcome are the high capital-requirements and the dependence on government funding.  First, a common obstacle of programs like CVPS Cow Power is that they require high amounts of capital; many are literally dependent on state grants and other types of funding in order to survive.  While it is true that the Cow Power program is foremost a contract through the CVPS and local farmers, which benefits the local economy, but it is also true that the CVPS alone could not fund the Cow Power Program.  Government agencies are responsible for providing extensive funding in the form of grants.  Participants in the Cow Power program receive, on average, approximately $700,000 worth of grants3.  The program would not be economically feasible without those grants.

Another challenge for the Cow Power program has been fluctuation in market prices.  Electricity, just like any other commodity, is based on market pricing and thus in times where electricity is less expensive, farmers are unable to earn profits collected from the energy market.  In 2009, Vermont passed the Vermont Energy Act, which has guaranteed farmers a stable locational marginal price (or wholesale price) on energy that does not fluctuate with the market3.  The Vermont Public Service board later approved a feed-in tariff in 3010, which raises that locational marginal price further, so that farmers generating renewable energy are able to collect profits based on a price of $0.141/kWh in addition to the $0.04/kWh3.

Another challenge that the Cow Power program faces is that for investors or farmers seeking to join the program, there are no turn-key farms.  Each farm in operation went through a two to three year planning process, in which their existing dairy farms were formatted with methane digesters and generators.  To put this into perspective, the average cost it takes to retro-fit a farm to produce electricity in this manner is approximately $3,038,468.  For example, just to connect the farm to the electrical grid is on average $183,143.  The farmers in the program receive, on average, approximately $703,313 and use almost $1.5 million of their own capital.  The bulk of this capital is provided by private bank loans3.  The funding challenges that many of the Cow Power farms face are exacerbated further by the fact that until the program survives over an extended period of time, many lenders are hesitant to invest in a business venture with unknown risks.  If renewable energy programs like Cow Power are not provided with opportunities to overcome challenges like these, then producing renewable energy at the micro-level may never be achieved.

Lessons Learned from the Cow Power Program

It is clear that the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation needs to conduct more research regarding the Cow Power Program.  In instances where the case study researchers were unable to determine the life-cycle of specific equipment, it was estimated at approximately seven years.  However, a seven year life cycle for a generator is not very realistic.  The methane digester and the generators will probably far exceed the life-cycle estimate of seven years, which will also affect the cost-return analysis results.  The cost-return should be conducted with more appropriate data, if available.

Another lesson learned from the CVPS Cow Power Program is that stronger government subsidies are required to jump-start municipal renewable energy programs.  Funding provided through government agencies provides domestically-created energy at a reasonable price.  Where this funding is successful, municipalities will eventually be less dependence on centralized assistance programs.  By creating energy self-sufficiency, the United States will depend less on foreign energy sources like oil.

In areas where Cow Power is feasible based on industry, geography, and climate, state governments should provide funding.  By not investing in domestic, local energy sources, the United States government breeds negligence.  For every Cow Power program that fails or is never developed because there is no grant money available, millions of gallons of foreign-supplied oil must be supplemented.  A key perspective in Thomas Friedman’s, Hot, Flat & Crowded,is that the cycle of dependence that countries engage in where energy is provided by foreign source, this type of economic pattern requires federal investment into non-domestic markets, like China.  A redirection of investment will continue to develop foreign economies that are in direct competition with the United States; this cycle hurts the American economy.  The United States government along with specific states in which Cow Power is feasible are obligated to the citizens to create opportunities for local energy production.  This local energy strategy is an example of how governments can take measures to strengthen local economies, creating a mutually beneficial situation at the local, state, and federal levels instead of investing money abroad.

My final thoughts…

This report examined the structure, organization, and financing of energy produced using farm methane.  The CVPS Cow Power program illustrates that renewable energy production at the micro-scale can meet the triple bottom line, wean American states from dependence on foreign-produced energy, create stronger local economies, and develop regional partnerships.  Two analysis were conducted within the case study, both of which show that renewable energy programs rely heavily on grant money.  Despite that fact, the benefits of the Cow Power program vastly outweigh the challenges, which can be overcome with strong government subsidies and produce a spectrum of benefits ranging from the farmer to the federal government.


1.  Cvps cow power. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.cvps.com/cowpower/

2.  Friedman, Thomas.  Hot, flat, and crowded: Why we need a green revolution – and how it can renew america.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

3.  Wang, Q., Thompson, E., Parsons, R., Rogers, G., & Dunn, D. (2011). Economic feasibility of    converting cow manure to electricity: A case study of the cvps cow power program in vermont.  American Dairy Science Association, 94(10), 4937-4949.

**Some of my methodology has been omitted from this post, because well…its really boring. If you’re interested in reading/learning about the full case study I examined, please send me an email.**

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