Cow poop is lighting the way for students at a tiny Vermont college.
Green Mountain College, a 760-student school located along the Vermont-New York border, on Thursday started to get half of its electricity from farms that run generators powered by methane gas extracted from cow manure.
The college will pay a premium for the privilege — an extra $48,000 on its $250,000-a-year electricity bill — but also see its greenhouse gas emissions decrease.
“This initiative helps the college do its part to address global warming by reducing its carbon emissions by approximately 3500 metric tons per year, or the equivalent of removing 758 passenger cars, from use for a year,” the liberal arts college said in a statement.
"It's a perfect fit," said college President John Brennan. "We're an environmental college, we're dedicated to environmental applications and renewable energy."
College and utility officials gathered at Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, 35 miles north of its Poultney campus, to announce the agreement. The farm is the site of Central Vermont Public Service Corp.'s first cow power generator, which its owners fired up nearly two years ago.
The power company, which harnesses and delivers the power, allows customers to take 25 percent, 50 percent or all of their electricity from the cow power program. Since the Audet family installed the initial generator for the project at their farm, they've installed a second.
The utility, which has signed up more than 3,500 other customers for cow power, has provided grants to four other farms to help them pay for generators, and more are in the works. A few other utilities across the country have similar programs.
"We're hoping by the end of 2010 to have 12 farms and 7,500 to 10,000 customers" involved in the program, said power company spokesman Steve Costello.
The Audets have about 1,000 milking Holsteins and 500 young stock in high-tech barns that feature "alley scrapers" — much like big squeegees on wheels — that move down the rows of cows, pushing their manure through grates to a conveyor belt below.
The belt carries the manure to an anaerobic — meaning oxygen-free — digester, a 100-foot-by-70-foot structure similar to a covered swimming pool. Methane is extracted from the digester and piped to the two generators. The power they make is then sent through transformers and onto the grid.
About 600 utility-sponsored programs around the country ask customers to pay a premium on their rates to support development of renewable energy sources, Costello said. In many such programs, customers are told their power is coming from some combination of wind turbines, hydroelectric dams or other renewable sources.
Capitalizing on cows
But there's less specificity about the sources of that power than there is with the CVPS program, he said.
"One of the reasons we did cow power as opposed to wind or just plain renewables is the homegrown nature of it and its connection to Vermont," he said. Customers can "drive by the farm and see where their energy is coming from and stop by for a visit if they want to."
The program capitalizes on a common byproduct from one of the northeastern state’s top industries, with a typical Vermont dairy cow producing around 13 gallons of manure daily, according to Costello.
Vermont boasts the highest cow-to-people ratio in the United States, with 300,000 cattle and calves and just over 600,000 people, according to state figures.