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

Cashing in on cows

cow picture
“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.” Thomas de Quincey

“Nowhere is the cow so feeble, and her yield so little as in India. Nowhere is she so badly treated as she is today in India by the Hindus.” So said Mahatma Gandhi in 1925, in a speech to the All-India Cow-Protection Conference.

Being holy comes with more duties than privileges. Hindus don’t kill or eat their cows, but Gandhi’s speech underlines the fact that apart from milk, a live cow can provide fertilizer, fuel and building material from its dung, as well as traction power and maybe even another cow. And it can do this by eating grass and parts of plants that are of no use to humans.

It also provides an ultimate safety net when times are really hard, but killing a cow provides only a one-off benefit that may prove disastrous to a poor family in the long run. As Marvin Harris points out in Cows, pigs, wars and witches,  a taboo against killing cows can have practical benefits beyond its religious and moral meanings.

Today, there are more cows in the world than Indians, and the livestock sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the agricultural economy. According to the FAO’s latest State of Food and Agriculture report,  livestock accounts for 40% of the global value of agricultural production and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a billion people. Worldwide, livestock contributes 15% of total food energy and 25% of dietary protein. Products from livestock provide essential micronutrients that are not easily obtained from other plant food products.

Rising incomes, population growth and urbanisation are pushing up demand for meat products in developing countries. Global annual meat production is expected to expand from 228 million tonnes at present to 463 million tonnes by 2050, with the cattle population estimated to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and that of goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion.

All these animals need food and drink too. To produce a kilo of boneless beef takes about 6.5 kg of grain, 36 kg of roughages, and 155 litres of water for drinking and servicing. Producing the feed requires about 15300 litres of water on average.

We look at the “water footprint” of everyday products in the Insights on Sustainable Development, while food production and environmental questions are among the issues discussed in the forthcoming Insights on food and agriculture.

Useful links

Agriculture ministers from OECD and non-OECD countries will be meeting at the OECD on 25-26 February. On this page you’ll find information about the meeting as well as a series of background notes covering the issues ministers will be discussing.

We’ll also be discussing some of these issues in a series of posts next week.