Poo power: Dutch dairy industry launches €150m biogas project


Will a scheme to turn cow manure into biogas help the Netherlands lose its reputation as the ‘bad guy’ of Europe when it comes to agricultural emissions?


The air smells fruity, slightly alcoholic. Against the strong hum of machinery, 175 cows are eating hay. As their dung drops to the slatted floor, a machine sweeps it through and it runs underneath the barn to a futuristic dome outside.

The Heegs’ 75-hectare family farm in remote Friesland, in the north-west of the Netherlands, where cows outnumber people almost two to one, marks the start of a national experiment to encourage farms to turn their manure into biogas.

The process is simple: the dung is broken down by bacteria into biogas in an anaerobic digester. Other machines then extract nitrates and phosphates to make fertiliser, leaving organic matter, which is spread on the Heegs’ farm.

Masterminded by FrieslandCampina, the country’s largest dairy collective which buys milk from 13,500 of the Netherlands’ 17,000 dairy farmers, the project has established an initial target of getting 1,000 large farms across the country to make power from cow manure within four years.

Farmers lease an anaerobic digester and are given a 12 year fixed price for the biogas they produce, subsidised by the Dutch government. To date, the economic affairs department has committed €150m (£135m) to the cow power programme.

“Before, we just spread [dung] on the land. Now I process it, get energy from it and then fertiliser. This way, we make everything useful,” says 27-year-old Pieter Heeg. He expects to make €10,000 a year selling excess energy to Jumpstart, a new cooperative launched by FrieslandCampina to help farmers through the process of leasing and installing an anaerobic digester.

In the 20 days since Henk Kamp, the Netherlands’ economic affairs minister, turned on the Heegs’ digester, it has generated 9,342 kWh of electricity, enough to power three homes for a year. At the switching-on ceremony, Kamp spoke about the contribution such energy generation would make to the Netherlands’ target (pdf) of generating 14% of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2020.

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