Turning cow dung into electricity – latimes.com

Dairy farmer Ron Koetsier’s 1,200 cows produce roughly 90 tons of manure daily, and for the last three decades, he has tried unsuccessfully to turn the stinky dung into energy to power his 450-acre farm in Visalia.

He installed a nearly $1-million renewable energy system in 1985 that used the methane from manure to create electricity for his farm. In 2002, he replaced that system with newer technology, but he hit a snag when air-quality standards called for expensive retrofits to reduce air pollution; he eventually shut down the system in 2009.

In a few weeks, however, Koetsier’s renewable-energy efforts will get a reboot as a new company replaces his current system with one that is expected to satisfy strict air standards in the highly polluted San Joaquin Valley.

A decade or so ago, dozens of California dairy farmers built million-dollar systems called methane digesters that convert manure into power. Then, unexpected pollution problems, regulatory roadblocks and low rates of return killed most such digester systems, leaving only a handful in operation.

All that could be changing as renewable energy companies develop new ways of running digesters to boost profits. They’re improving technology to meet tough smog-control rules. At the same time, the state is trying out a streamlined permitting process to help remove costly regulatory hurdles.

Koetsier will be the first dairy farmer to install a digester under the state’s program. He said he is optimistic that this go-around — his third attempt to make a system work — will finally pay off.

After hearing of the technological and other advances, he decided to "give it another whirl," Koetsier said.

State officials are pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that is causing utilities to pursue more renewable energy sources. Experts say digesters show particular promise in California, the top dairy producing state with 1.8 million cows.

"If these digesters run properly, they can reduce odors associated with manure, stabilize nitrogen and have a number of environmental benefits," said John Blue, climate change advisor for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The systems "add to California’s goal of renewable power generation. We’d like to see dairy digesters as part of the mix."

One California renewable energy company, CH4 Power Inc., said it plans to build more than 40 digester systems over the next year. It’s set to begin construction on its first digester on Koetsier’s dairy in the coming weeks. Other firms are expected to follow.

The challenge, however, may be trying to persuade weary dairy farmers to give digesters another try, especially after some tough years in the dairy industry.

Dairy farmers have plenty of manure lying around to convert to energy. A typical cow can produce as much as 150 pounds of dung daily. That presents a continuing challenge for farmers to dispose of waste and control the methane — a greenhouse gas — produced by decomposing manure.

Digesters seemed like the perfect solution only a few years ago. Manure is fed into a digester, which extracts methane from decomposing organic material, removes impurities and burns it to produce energy.

But many farmers ran afoul of air pollution regulations because their generators emitted nitrogen oxide, or NOx, a component of smog.

Retrofitting digesters with catalytic converters was expensive, costing about $150,000, and put additional strain on the engines that run the systems.

The current generation of digesters has improved technology that should alleviate that concern, experts said.

With those advances in mind, officials are trying to kick-start new projects by turning to a consolidated permitting program on the books since the mid-1990s but never used.

It took the collaboration by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, Cal/EPA, and local air and water quality boards to figure out how to permit new digesters.

The goal is to involve all the various permitting agencies in the beginning of the process to ensure there are no surprises later, Cal/EPA’s Blue said.

Ray Brewer, president of CH4 Power, drew Koetsier back to the digester concept with the promise of a new, potentially less risky way of doing business: Instead of Koetsier running the operation, CH4 will lease the land where the system will be installed and buy Koetsier’s manure.

CH4 technicians will be able to monitor it remotely and will be readily available if it breaks down, Brewer said.

Brewer said he tested his system in other states, such as Wisconsin and Idaho, before shopping it around with California dairy farmers, whom he said were very skeptical.

He eventually signed his first contract with Koetsier — "Talk about apprehensive," Brewer recalled. "That was a little bit of an understatement."

Brewer’s business model, in which farmers lease their land and sell their animals’ waste to third-party operators, seemed less of a financial gamble, Koetsier said.

It’s a model dairy farmers will be more comfortable with, experts said. That way, a dairy operator can focus on producing milk, not running a small power plant.

"You have a lot of dairy farmers who put these things on and found themselves willy-nilly in the energy business," said Stacey Sullivan, policy director at Conservation California, a San Francisco environmental group. "There are few people who have managed to make it work."

Sullivan said the technology has advanced to meet air- and water-quality standards, but the missing piece of the puzzle is whether utilities will set rates economically favorable to farmers.

Others, however, are skeptical and waiting to see how others, such as CH4 Power, fare.

Mark Moser, president of RCM International Inc., stopped installing digesters in California four years ago.

Moser said the biggest hurdle isn’t the rates utilities pay for energy produced — it’s state environmental regulations. He said the last time he installed a digester in California it took 18 months to get it permitted. In Pennsylvania, where he also installs his machines, it took three months.

"The air rules are impossible," he said.

About 10 years ago there were a couple of dozen digesters in California. Now there are just 11, and six of them are Moser’s. He has since moved staff and his manufacturing out of the state.

It’s unclear whether CH4’s bet will pay off, but observers, such as Cal/EPA’s Blue, are paying close attention.

"I suspect if we can get one project through the process successfully, then we’ll have more," Blue said. "Everyone wants to be second in line with these types of things."

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In the beverage industry, it’s definitely tea’s time

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ANNE CUSACK, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Tea expert David DeCandia explains how his company, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, makes a variety of brews at the firm’s processing facility in Camarillo. Tea’s popularity has been a long time coming for the self-taught DeCandia, 53, who early in his career had to create blends by mixing leaves with a snow shovel on a steel floor.

BY TIFFANY HSU,Los Angeles Times

May 26, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

Tea expert David DeCandia has spent his entire 17-year career in the shadow of coffee.

At his employer, Los Angeles beverage chain Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, coffee comes first in the company name. It also takes up most of the company’s processing facility in Camarillo and brings in 90% of the revenue.

But more Americans are complaining that their coffee buzz feels like a hangover, citing concerns about over-caffeination and high prices. DeCandia is reading the tea leaves — and seeing a cultural shift toward his brew of choice.

“The tea industry is going straight up, and at some point, it will reach the level of coffee,” he said, standing in a lab ringed by porcelain cups, maps of tea estates and bags of dried Oolong. “It’s time. People have maxed out on other types of beverage.”

Americans developing a hankering for tea are turning one of history’s oldest drinks into what may be the beverage industry’s sexiest new offering.

Domestic tea sales at restaurants, grocery stores and shops reached $15.7 billion last year, up nearly 32% from 2007, according to consumer goods research firm Packaged Facts. In the next two years, the market is expected to expand to $18 billion.

The tea-drinking demographic is widening. Aging baby boomers and Redbull-swigging youngsters are expected to buy more tea. Asians, long a key revenue source, form the fastest-growing racial group in the country. Rising interest in ethnic cuisines is drawing foodies to Japanese matcha, Indian Darjeeling and African Rooibos teas.

Hollywood, normally linked with booze endorsements, is also providing a splash of glamour. “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi sells teas through her Easy Exotic line of goods. The television drama “Downton Abbey” has turned tea parties into a trend. Celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air and Gordon Ramsay at the London in West Hollywood offer afternoon tea menus.

Corporate America is taking notice. Soda giants PepsiCo and Coca Cola are plugging teas through brands such as Brisk, Honest Tea and Fuze. Tea-infused waters, soft drinks and energy drinks are increasingly prevalent. So too are tea-flavored booze options such as spiked iced-tea brand Twisted Tea and Arnold Palmer Hard, a mixture of iced tea, lemonade and alcohol.

Even Howard Schultz, chief executive of coffee giant Starbucks Corp., is betting big on tea.

Last year, the company expanded its $1-billion Tazo Tea business by opening its first Tazo tea shop. Starbucks also spent $620 million for mall-based tea retailer Teavana, which it hopes to expand to at least 1,000 locations from 300 currently.

“We could do for tea what we’ve done for coffee,” Schultz told investors. “This is a big, big opportunity.”

But Earl Grey still has a while to go before overtaking joe.

Last year, the American tea industry pulled in $987 million in revenue at the wholesale level, a tenth of the $9.6 billion for coffee manufacturers, according to research group IBISWorld. And it’s not just java — tea consumption domestically also lags behind bottled water, soft drinks, milk and juice.

Still, the ancient brew may be catching up.

Tea drinking is growing in the U.S. at a faster rate than coffee, according to IBISWorld. In the last decade, the amount of tea consumed by the average American grew 22.5% and will rise an additional 3% in the next five years. Coffee slumped 1.9% between 2003 and 2013 and will grow less than 1% through 2018.

Coffee and soda are facing a backlash from authorities and consumers over health concerns. Coffee also is struggling with supply chain disruptions and an overcrowded market.

Tea could rocket past coffee sales by 2017, coffee and tea industry panelists said at last year’s World Tea Expo in Las Vegas. Two years ago, a record 281 million pounds of tea was imported into the U.S., according to the Tea Assn. of the USA.

The surge is driven by consumers such as Christopher Caplan, 21, who in the past year has gone from drinking as many as five cups of coffee a day to weaning himself off the “really addictive” stuff with a daily cup of tea.

“It got really bad,” the Koreatown musician said of his coffee habit. “And there’s so much more variety that you can get out of tea — not all of them caffeinated, so many with ingredients that have healthful qualities.”

The tea market is attempting to shatter its reputation as a bland liquid served from unwieldy porcelain pots.

Specialty iced teas — Southern sweet tea, tea lattes, Thai teas, Taiwanese boba and more — are increasingly common on menus, according to the National Restaurant Assn.

The beverage is becoming more portable — a key selling point for an on-the-go nation. The growth rate of bottled tea sales is outpacing that of soft drinks, according to several studies. More teas are being sold in convenience stores and fast-food outlets such as Sonic Drive-In, which in April launched a new line of iced green teas with multitudesof flavor combinations.

Now, tea retailers are targeting coffee shops as they attempt to bring tea out of the home.

It’s a tricky endeavor, considering that Starbucks alone has about 13,000 coffee-focused cafes in the country. There are 4,000 specialty tearooms and retail shops in the U.S., according to the Tea Assn.

Still, small Southern California chains such as Bird Pick Tea & Herb and Chado Tea Room — where one wireless password is “no coffee” — have gradually expanded. And experts believe that new gadgets — one mimics an espresso maker by quickly creating standardized cups of loose-leaf tea — could allow tea to be served via drive-throughs.

“Everyone’s been really jumping on the bandwagon, especially in L.A.,” said IBISWorld analyst Agata Kaczanowska.

Tea’s popularity has been a long time coming for the self-taught DeCandia, 53, who early in his tea career at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf had to create blends by mixing leaves with a snow shovel on a steel floor.

When he arrived at the company, fresh off a gig as an oil distribution manager for Halliburton Co., he was a warehouse worker. There was no official position for a tea expert partly because low demand didn’t warrant one.

These days, tea’s share of overall Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf sales has increased to 15% from 3% in the late 1990s. The company this year erected two buildings at the Camarillo warehouse dedicated to the tea operation, giving DeCandia 10 times the space he used to have. A new tea bagging machine was ordered.

DeCandia — tanned, flip-flop-wearing and fond of the word “dude” — even penned a children’s book called “Master Davey and the Magic Tea House.” The recent popularity of his favorite drink, of which he downs three gallons a day, hits close to home.

“My daughter says that all of her friends dig tea now,” he said. “And why wouldn’t they?”

tiffany.hsu