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Alumnus aims to help farmers turn waste into energy

By Jason Kammerdiener '10 on October 25, 2010

As the world searches for alternative sources of energy, Bill Jorgenson ’65 is exploring an option that he acknowledges is not particularly glamorous: cow poop and garbage.

Jorgenson is the managing partner of AGreen Energy LLC (AGE), an organization that has developed a process to not only generate sustainable energy from what would otherwise be waste, but also to maintain the viability of small farms.

The process is fairly simple: farmers can install large anaerobic digesters on their farms that mix manure and organic waste, such as leftover food from a mess hall. An enzymatic process releases methane from the manure, and the methane can then be cleaned and burned to power a generator.

“The farmers only use about 10 percent of the electricity they create, then the other 90 percent they sell up to the grid,” explained Jorgenson. “A small farm of 300 to 500 head of cattle can heat somewhere around 300 homes” — which means that the farmers earn extra income.

AGE’s process is designed to maximize the use of resources in other ways as well. The leftover mixture of manure and feedstock can be recycled as a high-efficiency, low-pollution fertilizer.

Also, because all generators lose some energy to heat from friction, AGE has designed a method of capturing that heat and feeding it into greenhouses.

“The farmers will be growing vegetables in the wintertime,” explained Jorgenson. “The largest single cost that you have when running a greenhouse is energy. This is free, though, because it is the heat from the generator that would otherwise be wasted.”

The organization is currently working with small dairy farmers in Massachusetts to build the first pilot projects, and Jorgenson’s goal is that AGE’s system will one day assist small farmers across the country.


jorgenson

Although he and his partners only started AGE in 2006, Jorgenson has bountiful experience at every level of the agri-food and renewable energy fields. He is an expert on the biofuel industry, with which he has been involved nearly since its inception.

Jorgenson has also managed the operations of the Quaker Oats Co. in Latin America, advised universities and even countries about sustainable development, and founded his own consulting business, SJH and Co., which advises the world’s largest agri-food companies on issues like developing more efficient agriculture.

He even patented a process, later acquired by John Deere, for tracking food products all the way from the farm to the table, which is critical when tracking foodborne illnesses like salmonella to their source.

For Jorgenson, AGE is something of a culmination of all that he has done so far, “and it comes at a time when everybody says you should retire.”

Instead of retiring, “which has no appeal to me at all,” he said, Jorgenson is splitting his time between his consulting work with SJH, and the AGE project. He relishes the challenge of working one day with the world’s largest corporations to design a more water-efficient method of growing tomatoes, and the next day with small farmers trying to ensure that their businesses can survive into the next generation.

“Usually everybody wants to do things big,” Jorgenson observed. “What’s the end economic benefit, and when will somebody come along with a big treasure chest of money and buy you out? Well, in this case, the buyout is that the next generation gets to keep the farm.”

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3 Comments



  • Bill Jorgenson said:

    The digestion process returns all the nutrients, actually improved because the heat in the process allows the nutrients to be absorbed faster by the plants relieving water run-off, to the land just as you do now in using manure. There will be no less manure delivered than in the current method, we merely extract the gas reducing the GHG effects and generating electricity.
    We will not reduce the amount going on the field so there is no cost or decline in use. We will actually do some solid separation to the waste using this for bedding for the cows, cutting down on the use of wood products, and leaving some as a peat moss type of product which is ideally suited for greenhouse growing of vegetables in the winter using the waste heat from the generator as the heat source.
    It gives a new crop to the smaller farmer to help sustain farms where the economic pressure is to consolidate them adding to our economy and our society.




  • John Robinson said:

    Good point Doug, almost like taking food and turning it into NRG. It must be sensible and sustainable. My grandfather’s 45 year old refrigerator has never been repaired and works almost as good as the day they bought it. While it’s not nearly as efficient as the new ones, it has outlived 4 refrigerators therefore I would imagine is much more efficient because its footprint is so small when matched up against 4 new ones manufacturing, transportation and recycling costs in carbon usage. Things are not always as they seem.
    On the other hand if you have a large herd with a small amount of acreage, you might be better off doing what Jorgenson suggests!




  • Douglas N. Johnson, M.D. said:

    Do you consider hidden costs? Cow manure is used to refertilize cropland. It adds back to the soil nitrogen and humus. To replace the nitrogen added by the manure, natural gas (methane) is consumed in enormous quantities to manufacture nitrogen fertilizers. The humus, of course, adds to the moisture retaining capacity of the soil, improving crop yields and reducing soil erosion. If we do not consider the value of current use of materials, such as cow manure and corn stalks and leaves, among the costs of operations such as those proposed, we never know whether they are helpful to our economy and our society.