California has 1.7 million dairy cows—one cow for every 22 people in the state. They produce enough milk for the entire country.
Milk & Methane
They also produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more harmful than CO2. But, for the first time, methane from more than 14,000 cows near Fresno is being turned into electricity in a partnership with BMW.
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Photo courtesy of Bar 20 Dairy
When Bar 20 Dairy in Kerman, Calif., installed the first-ever dairy manure digester that captures methane to generate power in a large bank of fuel cells, it caught BMW's attention. "In California, we match all of our electric vehicle charging with energy produced by farms," says Adam Langton, Energy Services Manager with BMW of North America.
"My grandfather lived to be 102 years old," says Steve Shehadey, who manages the business his grandfather founded 65 years ago. "He was always pushing us to try to get better. He was 90 years old, and he would say, 'Hey, are we doing this or are we doing that?' I guess he's instilled that with his kids and now with our generation—never get complacent."
Steve Shehadey & Bar 20 Dairy
Shehadey's dairy is a large, efficient family-owned operation that produces 2 million gallons of milk each month.
The milk is sold primarily under the consumer brand of Producers Dairy, one of the top 10 dairy brands on the West Coast. Milk from Bar 20's morning milking can be on local shelves and on its way to stores throughout Central and Northern California on the same day.
In its constant drive to improve and control costs, Bar 20 Dairy grows its own feed, storing it beneath white tarps for future use, and has installed solar panels along with the methane digester to produce its own clean electricity.
"In California, two of the biggest challenges that you have are high energy costs and dirty air," says Shehadey, who has a degree in Entrepreneurship from the University of Southern California. "When we first heard about the methane digester, we thought, 'Well, here's something that could be part of the solution.' It can create renewable energy, offset high energy costs, and reduce methane."
With a $3 million grant from the state of California, a partnership between Bar 20 Dairy, California Bioenergy, and Bloom Energy launched the first project of its kind in November 2021—converting methane from cows into electricity using fuel cell technology. Bar 20's 14,500 cows produce enough clean energy for the farm and to charge 17,000 BMW electric vehicles.
The dairy's manure accumulates in four channels, each one as wide as a four-lane highway. Moisture and organic material seep out through "weeping walls" and drain into the enormous covered bio-digester.
How the Bio-digester Works
The methane digester is covered with a black rubber tarp. As the organic material decomposes, the tarp balloons with methane gas.
Bar 20 Dairy Operations Manager Emanuel Torres walks between the weeping walls. "We can't control milk prices," Torres says, "but we can control what we use."
Bar 20 Dairy's Controller Sarah Dean talks with Bank of the West's Michael Burke, passing by the filtration system, which removes sulfur compounds and excess moisture from highly corrosive methane before it powers the fuel cells. "What I love about this company," says Dean, "is that they look for ways to sustain their relationship with the land. Being good stewards ensures we'll be here for a long time."
The bio-digester, combined with two solar facilities on the property, produces all the electricity the dairy needs, plus enough extra electricity to power about 500 homes.
There are 185 bio-digesters in California, according to Dairy Cares. Bar 20 Dairy's unique use of fuel cells opens a new chapter in the story of clean energy on the farm.