How to Use Cow Manure for Sustainable Energy Production

How to Use Cow Manure for Sustainable Energy Production

An Introduction to Cow Manure as an Energy Source

Cow manure has significant potential as a renewable energy source. As a raw material, cow manure contains methane, which can be captured and used to generate electricity and heat. Converting cow manure into energy is an eco-friendly and sustainable practice that supports the circular economy.

There are several key benefits to using cow manure for energy:

  • Cow manure is readily available on farms and dairies. With proper management, it can provide a regular supply of feedstock for energy production.
  • Energy from manure is renewable and sustainable. Manure is constantly produced by livestock and does not deplete finite resources.
  • Methane gas captured from manure prevents its release into the atmosphere. This helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Manure-based energy helps farms and dairies manage waste and become more self-sufficient for their energy needs.
  • It provides local and distributed generation of electricity and heat. This increases energy security and resilience.

Overall, cow manure has significant potential as a green energy source. With the right techniques and systems, manure’s energy can be harnessed to power farms, communities, and beyond.

Technologies for Converting Cow Manure to Energy

There are several established and emerging technologies that can be used to convert cow manure into useful energy:

Anaerobic Digesters

Anaerobic digesters are systems that use bacteria to break down manure in an oxygen-free environment. This produces biogas containing methane that can be burned for energy production. The basic process involves:

  • Collecting and mixing fresh manure with water to create a slurry.
  • Feeding the slurry into an airtight tank or covered lagoon digester.
  • Allowing bacteria to decompose the manure and release biogas over 20-40 days.
  • Collecting the methane-rich biogas and burning it to generate electricity and heat.

Benefits of digesters include producing renewable power and preventing pollution from untreated manure.

Thermochemical Conversion

Thermochemical conversion involves applying heat to dried manure in an oxygen-free environment. With temperatures over 500°C, chemical reactions produce a mixture of gases including hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. This “syngas” can then fuel generators or boilers.

Gasification and pyrolysis are two thermochemical technologies used to convert biomass like manure into energy. Major benefits include flexibility in manure moisture content and high conversion efficiency.

Co-Firing with Coal

Co-firing involves mixing dried manure with coal to fire boilers and generate electricity. This provides an opportunity to make use of manure energy without major new capital investments.

With proper feedstock preparation and emissions controls, manure can replace 5-10% of coal use. This diversifies fuel sources while reducing fossil fuel dependence.

Key Factors for Project Development

Several important factors should be evaluated when developing a cow manure energy project:

  • Manure supply – Assess the number of cows on site and daily manure output to size systems appropriately. Larger farms can produce sufficient manure for worthwhile projects.
  • Available technologies – Match the technology solution to the farm’s needs and capabilities. Assess labor, expertise, capital costs, and other requirements.
  • Economics – Determine project costs, energy production revenues, and payback period. Account for manure collection, system operation and government incentives.
  • Permitting – Confirm project complies with environmental regulations. Permitting can be complex for anaerobic digestion systems.
  • System maintenance – Develop plans for ongoing maintenance and repair of digesters, generators or boilers. This ensures sustained biogas production.
  • Energy use – Assess how the farm can directly use the electricity, heat and other energy produced. Excess power may also be sold.

Carefully evaluating these factors helps determine project feasibility and ensures successful implementation.

Opportunities and Challenges with Manure Energy

Converting cow manure into energy has promising opportunities but also some technical and economic challenges:


  • Produce renewable power or heat from waste material
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from manure
  • Create economic opportunity for struggling farms
  • Support local energy resilience and security
  • Leverage existing anaerobic digester knowledge and systems


  • High upfront capital costs for systems like digesters
  • Consistent supply of manure feedstock
  • Pre-processing manure to meet system needs
  • Maintaining ideal digester conditions for biogas output
  • Connecting energy systems to the grid or utilizing the energy on site
  • Complying with environmental regulations

Overcoming these challenges requires strategic project development, system oversight, and optimal use of incentives. When executed well, manure energy can be a triple win – for sustainable farming, renewable energy, and greenhouse gas reduction.

Real World Project Examples

Many successful manure energy projects have already been implemented around the world:

  • B-Bar Ranch in Montana uses a mixed plug-flow digester, generating 120 kW of electricity from manure supplied by 300 dairy cows. This provides all the energy needs of the ranch.

  • At Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, manure from 9,500 cows powers an on-site anaerobic digester. It produces enough biogas to fuel more than 1,600 homes annually.

  • The Carbotrans Biogas Plant in Belgium processes manure from 13,000 cows along with agricultural and food wastes. Combined heat and power (CHP) engines produce 3 MW of electrical energy and 4 MW of heat.

  • Groot Zevert Vergisting operates a large co-digestion plant in the Netherlands. Input feedstocks include manure as well as industrial food wastes. The facility generates over 200 million kWh of renewable electricity per year.

These projects demonstrate the diverse technologies and scales at which manure energy can sustainably support farms, communities, and electricity grids.


With proper planning and system implementation, cow manure represents a valuable opportunity to produce renewable energy and reduce environmental impacts. Key technologies like anaerobic digestion and various thermochemical processes can help capture the energy potential in manure. Successful projects require assessing manure supply, available technologies, economics, permitting, and maintenance. While challenges exist, manure energy can provide sustainable benefits for specific farms, communities and nations.