04/25/2011 06:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

Baseload, Now -- From a Cow?

Riddle me this: What do nukes and cows have in common?

I couldn't have answered that question myself last week. But, while attending the Agriculture 2.0 Conference last week in San Francisco, I discovered they're both potential sources of critical baseload power for utilities.

It's common knowledge that nuclear's key selling point is its ability to deliver that Holy Grail known as baseload. Baseload means power you can count on, that isn't fickle like wind and solar power, both of which fizzle as winds die or clouds block the sun.

By contrast, cow dung isn't going anywhere. A single cow produces 120 pounds of it every day and the methane in that manure can produce 120 kilowatt hours a year. And "that," says Haider Nazar, of Verliant Energy Partners, a bioenergy project developer in Walnut Creek, Calif., "is baseload power."

Biogas entrepreneurs in the U.S., including developers like Nazar, are determined to convince energy providers to start using this untapped resource instead of treating it as garbage.
There's precedent for doing so. Not long ago, the German government decided to create feed-in tariffs to support the development of a biogas industry. The result: 1,000 new biogas plants were built there last year and another 800 are being built in 2011.

"We feel organic waste is an under utilized asset," said Paul Sellew, chief executive officer of Harvest Power, a biogas company in Waltham, Mass. "We view it as stored solar energy."

That's because the grass cows spend their days munching is grown with solar energy.
"Nature has evolved a cow which is, in effect, an anaerobic plant digester. It's an excellent converter of plant source to energy," Sellew says.

If biogas entrepreneurs succeed in their quest, they could clean up a major waste problem, one of the worst causes of water pollution in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and use all that cow dung to provide a significant percentage of our national energy needs. Not incidentally, the more reliable baseload we find, the more wind and solar power utilities can confidently bring online. Sounds like a virtuous cycle to me.

Decades ago, Sellew was an early pioneer in the plant composting industry in the U.S. When he entered that field, there were a few hundred other competitors. Now there are thousands. He believes biogas is at the beginning of a similar growth trajectory.

Smart money agrees. One of Harvest's backers is the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.
With just 151 biogas converters operating in the U.S. right now, and 8,000 farms pre-qualified by the EPA to build new ones, a new horizon may finally be opening up for biogas.

I, for one, hope so- because solving for waste by creating energy is a recipe we need to become an integrated habit in the very near future.

Given the stink nuclear has gotten itself into recently, we may decide cow dung smells pretty sweet.