County digester shut down

The Cayuga County Soil and Water District digester in a 2013 photo. The digester has been temporarily shut down. 

The methane digester in Sennett has been temporarily shut down while the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District figures out a new plan of operation for it.

According to soil and water executive director Doug Kierst, the main operations of the digester were shut down in November. It is still, however, providing power to the county complex in Sennett.

Kierst said the digester operations have run into difficulties both from the cost of transporting manure and a lack of interest from restaurants and other food waste producers in the composting program.

"A couple of our markets never materialized," Kierst said. "So now we're taking a step back to reevaluate." 

Lower overall energy prices, according to Kierst, are cutting into the savings in energy costs the digester could provide, as the district must charge enough to make up for the expenses of using its own vehicles to transport manure to and from the farms. 

That, plus a dwindling interest in the food composting program, has the district rethinking how best to use the $8 million digester. The concern, Kierst said, is making any purchases or changes without first having a long-term plan in place. 

"We don't want to go out and spend $50,000 on parts and then realize that it wasn't something we needed," Kierst said.

Changes to the business model of the digester are expected to be discussed Wednesday at a board meeting for the district. 

As a project, the digester has stumbled over a more than a few bumps in the road since its proposal in 2005.  

The operational plan, however, has remained mostly consistent: the digester consumes manure from local farms, digesting micro-organisms within the manure, creating both electricity — 2,255,200 kilowatt-hours in 2013 — and a less pungent manure that can be redistributed to farmers and applied to fields. The process also leads to less methane being released into the atmosphere than the manure would give off if left to decompose on its own. 

The digester first went online in the spring of 2012. Along the way, the project faced funding deficits, land shortfallsdisputes with the state over the funding of parts not made in the country and difficulty coming to an agreement with the county Legislature on how much to charge it for using the electricity generated. 

The project was funded mostly through a series of grants, including $3.2 million in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It also took out a loan from the county for $1.5 million, money it had to request extra time to pay off in 2012. 

According to Cayuga County treasurer Jim Orman, the district made a principal payment of $50,000 to the county in 2014 . The next payment is due in April. 

Kierst said he remains optimistic about the project going forward. He said the concept for a community-based digester is rare in the United States and provides value to smaller farms that might not be able to afford private digesters.

He expects the digester to ramp up production again this spring. 

Here's a timeline of the digester, beginning in 2005: 

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Staff writer Ryan Deffenbaugh can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or Ryan.Deffenbaugh@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @Citizen_Deff.