Cow power!

Click to learn more about Cow Power

Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on regional development at the OECD.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what about its worth in cows? Behind this simple photo of a jolly tourist trolley stand a herd of 16 proud Vermont dairy cows, happily producing waste to help power this trolley. To be clear, their manure isn’t shoveled directly into an onboard furnace. Rather, the cows and the vehicle represent start and end points in a renewable energy success story.

This trolley runs thanks to “Cow Power”, a Vermont programme that gets dairy farmers to convert bovine waste into fuel, through the use of bio digesters. The digester produces methane gas, which fuels a modified natural gas engine, which in turn powers a generator to create electricity. Heat generated from this process keeps the digester warm, offsetting the farm’s fuel purchases. And the electricity generated is fed into the local energy utility’s system for distribution to customers.

To date, the programme has generated $1.8 million per year for Vermont farms, supporting a sector that has struggled, but which is of economic, cultural and historic value to the state. There are environmental payoffs too: Converting cow manure into methane biogas instead of letting it decompose reduces greenhouse gases. And together, eight Vermont cow power farms have the potential to eliminate 24 000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The programme also benefits the electric utility, as consumers agree to pay a higher rate when they choose to use cow power. A final bonus? The processing of the waste makes the final solid byproduct a whole lot less smelly than manure straight from the source, something that the farmers and their neighbors alike appreciate.

But “cow power” is only one of the myriad renewable energy options being deployed in rural areas around the world.  Many OECD governments have invested large amounts of public money to support renewable energy development and are requiring significant quantities of such energy to be sold by energy providers, deriving from biogas, wind, hydropower, solar power, or other natural sources. A new OECD report, Linking Renewable Energy to Rural Development, asks what the true economic impact of these policies and investments is, based on case studies in 16 regions across Europe and North America. Can renewable energy really help develop rural economies?

Renewable energy is being championed as potentially significant new sources of jobs and rural growth, and as a means of addressing environmental and energy security concerns. However, there can be significant trade-offs among these three goals. For instance, large biomass heat and power plants can generate employment in rural communities, but may increase CO2 emissions due to changes in land use and the transportation of feed or livestock. Or consider that small-scale renewable energy installations typically use labour and equipment from international suppliers, thus limiting local job creation.

Can such trade-offs be mitigated? The authors think so, if renewable energy policy is well-thought out, flexible and carefully adapted to local conditions, cultures and opportunities. Renewable energy strategies should not be imposed from above, they suggest, but rather embedded in local economic development plans and undertaken with community involvement. Programmes such as the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) – overseen by Community Energy Scotland (CES) – not only help provide greener sources of energy, but also build community cohesion, develop local confidence and skills, and support local economic regeneration.  

It is equally important to be realistic about what projects will work in a given place and economy, particularly if subsidies are limited or removed from the equation. Investment should be in those projects that are appropriate for their setting and viable on the market, or close to being so. Choosing relatively mature technologies such as heat from biomass, small-scale hydropower, and wind, is advisable. The Italian region of Puglia, for example, although long a producer of coal energy, has also invested in mature solar and wind technologies, and is seeing economic and environmental benefits.

Will cows soon be powering your buses? Will sheep be mowing your lawn? Such ideas are charming – and working, in certain communities. But the wider reality is that viable renewable energy policy is complex, and there are no shortcuts to rural development.

Useful links

OECD work on regional, rural and urban development

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

OECD Forum 2010: Green growth and energy

Did you know that the 8 million people in New York use as much electricity as the 800 million in sub-Saharan Africa ?

That statistic was quoted during this afternoon’s session on energy by IEA chief economist Fatih Birol in support of his argument that even without climate change, there is a strong case for renewable and alternative energies. Birol was replying to Cecilia Tortajada, Vice-President, Third World Centre for Water Management, who asked if it was time for a change of discourse, given the criticisms of climate change science recently.

Birol also vigorously rejected the criticisms, saying that practically every scientist in the world working on the issue accepted that there was an anthropogenic element in present climate trends. Session moderator Peter Kemp Editorial Director of UK based Energy Intelligence, agreed, saying the attacks on the science were politically motivated.

Birol’s main point was that in developing countries, it would take too long and cost too much to link up the 1.5 billion people who don’t have access to mains power. Alternatives such as solar could transform people’s lives.

He pointed out something that we discuss in Chapter 3 of the Insights book on sustainable development: electricity means your day lasts longer, and brings numerous development benefits, ranging from making it easier for kids to do their homework and business to work later to reducing air pollution and the eye and respiratory diseases it causes.

Alternatives and renewables have potential benefits in developed countries too, improving energy security and providing a substitute for the inevitable day when the oil runs out.

They’re not the only option though. The panellists seemed to agree that nuclear would play an important role in the future energy mix, but so would better energy efficiency.

There was optimism and pessimism regarding how the situation had changed since last year’s Forum.

On the downside, Copenhagen failed to live up to its promise; a global gas glut means that renewables are less attractive; and strong demand for renewables relies on strong expansion in demand – and that’s not happening because of the recession.

On the bright side, prices of photovoltaics have dropped significantly; second generation biofuels are gaining momentum; and many stimulus packages include a green growth element.