UP FRONT: Digesting savings

Posted on Sep 5, 2013 :: Up Front
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The new UW-Oshkosh biodigester under construction at the Rosendale Dairy in Pickett will provide most of the electricity for the campus when it’s completed later this year. Photo courtesy of UW Oshkosh

The University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh keeps getting greener: It’s expected to produce up to 70 percent of its electrical needs upon completing its new biogas production facility and biodigester this December.

“It’s the largest, commercial-scale digester in the nation,” says Thomas Sonnleitner, vice chancellor of administrative services at UW-Oshkosh.

The $7 million facility will produce heat and electricity using livestock waste from its location 15 miles away at the Rosendale Dairy farm in Pickett. Rosendale Dairy is the state’s largest dairy farm and has more than 9,000 cows. The facility will also function as a public education center and as an off-campus classroom and laboratory, as well as generate revenue for new student scholarships for the UW-Oshkosh Foundation.

The university, in partnership with the UW-Oshkosh Foundation, Milk Source, BIOFerm Energy Systems and its parent company, the Viessmann Group, broke ground for the facility at Rosendale in July.

The biodigester is actually the university’s third biodigester facility to be built. One of the digesters is located on campus and accounts for up to 10 percent of the university’s electrical needs. The other one is small and has little effect on the school. The Rosendale facility dwarfs the other two and will process 240 tons of fuel each day.

“The digester we have on campus today is responsible for eight to 10 percent of the University’s electricity. That’s 370 kilowatts,” says Sonnleitner. “This plant will produce 2.2 megawatts. That’s seven times the one we have on campus. Using both will generate around 80 percent of our electrical usage.”

The facility brings the university one massive step closer to its goal of achieving carbon neutrality. The university originally planned on achieving this by 2025. However, that target date will be lowered to around 2018-19 instead. The facility itself will be completed by the end of the year, eliminating most of the university’s carbon footprint in a matter of months.

Sonnleitner touched on yet another perk of the developing facility — its functionality as a fertilizer producer.

“The digester that will process the manure and electricity will be completed in December,” says Sonnleitner, “The second part of the plant, which produces fertilizers and lawn care products after the manure has been processed, probably won’t be complete until the end of first quarter of 2014.”

He also noted the environmental effects that the facility will have for the region.

“The manure that is spread on the fields in its current form, is one of the largest sources of pollution in the world because of the methane that’s going up into the atmosphere,” he says. “So by capturing the waste from nearly 10,000 cows, we’ll have a significant impact, at least in that region. We’re taking waste energy in its truest form.”

UW-Oshkosh has a knack for sustainability initiatives. In 2008, the university became the nation’s first “Fair Trade University.” The university also is a member of the Fair Labor Association, taking a tough stance against sweatshops by not doing business with companies that allow those working conditions.

In addition to the ecological benefits, the facility has the potential to produce a multitude of economic benefits.

“It’s really a high-technology operation,” says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. “Locating bioscience development here is going to help develop our region economically. As this cluster continues to develop, you’re going to have expanded manufacturing opportunities that tie into this industry.”

Kleman also highlighted the potential for new fields of employment.

“It’s really helping to expand a knowledge base from a technology perspective, from a workforce perspective, because they’re going to have environmental scientists associated with the project,” he says. “Those are the types of jobs that we’re trying to attract to this area.”