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Will Livestock Waste Be the Future of Energy?

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Jane Marsh's picture

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Feb 18, 2021

Innovators and farmers alike have kept up with technology’s advancement over the years by adopting various alternative energy sources. Many farms have integrated solar energy into their farms through agrivoltaics, where crops and livestock can grow and graze beneath solar panels. Other farms have long used wind turbines to power their industry.

These alternative energy sources will undoubtedly be part of the future of energy. However, the appeal of turning livestock waste into energy has resurfaced in recent years. It’s a great way to limit the amount of waste heading to landfills. Plus, the methane that is released once the waste is in the landfill is reduced. It also saves money and energy.

Wind power, solar power, and other alternatives to non-renewable energy will likely continue to be part of the future of energy. The question still remains — will livestock waste be the future of energy?

How Does Turning Waste Into Energy Work?

Just 10 years ago, it was estimated that animals on some of the larger farms produced around 369 million tons of waste. As the animal waste sits, it releases an enormous amount of methane into the atmosphere. If farmers don’t send the livestock waste to a landfill, they store it in a lagoon to use later as fertilizer. However, the same issue occurs — as the waste sits, it releases methane as it decomposes.

Methane is much worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. To be able to capture it and use it as energy is vital in reducing the effects of climate change. Plus, the farms that use this energy won’t have to source other resources to get the power they need to run the industry.

The process of transforming livestock waste into energy is complex. A machine called an anaerobic digester takes the waste and separates it into solids and liquids. It also significantly reduces the odors associated with animal byproducts.

Farmers can use the liquids for fertilizers after mixing with water, which doubles as an irrigation system. The methane is extracted from the solids. The solids, which are free of gases and liquid, can be used as bedding or compost. This eliminates waste from being transported to landfills or sitting in lagoons, left to release more methane. As a part of this process, the volume of the waste decreases.

Once the methane is extracted, it’s turned into biogas, which can be used as energy and fuel for farm equipment and buildings. The energy can also go back into the power grid so other people within the region can use it as long as the farm produces enough.

While much of the waste used now for energy is produced from cattle, other animals like pigs and chickens could also have enough waste to make it sensible to add an anaerobic digester to those ranches.

Is It Actually Sustainable?

The debate is still on as to whether this method of turning animal waste into energy is sustainable. Right now, innovators are looking at larger farms to be able to set up an anaerobic digestion facility. To be economically viable, a certain number of animals must be on a farm to produce enough waste to convert it to energy.

That means smaller farms are often overlooked. The cows and pigs on smaller farms, especially those that know how to operate year-round, still produce waste that ends up in landfills or lagoons, so methane still leaks into the air.

Some environmentalists claim that this process is not eco-friendly at all. The technology in digesters is finicky when temperatures change, and if too much waste is put through them, they quickly break down or stop working. Plus, the digesters are expensive to install and maintain.

On the other hand, it’s a renewable source of energy since animals are continually producing waste. Farmers can mitigate the cost of running their farms because the energy produced by the digester can be used for electricity or as fuel for equipment.

There’s not a direct answer to whether this process is sustainable. However, as technology continues to advance, digesters may become more efficient at their job.

Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, Hydroelectricity, and Cow Manure — the Futures of Energy

As long as people continue to eat beef or other livestock and consume dairy products, there will be cows, which means there will be cow byproducts. Instead of sending the waste to landfills, where it continues to release methane, it has excellent potential to be a sustainable resource and will be part of the future of energy.


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