Dane County is about to get its second manure digester, a $12.5 million treatment center that will be built near Middleton and completed in 2011.
It will be a replica — in size and cost — of a digester nearing completion outside Waunakee.
It also will be the last time the state kicks in money for such a project if some lawmakers can persuade their colleagues to cut off payments.
The manure digesters will process waste delivered by farmers, using bacteria to break down manure at a temperature of 100 degrees, producing biogas. The biogas will then operate a generator creating electricity. The last step will be removing phosphorus from the manure before converting it to liquid fertilizer.
The state in its last budget session committed $6.6 million toward such treatments centers. The money was split between the two Dane County digesters, with the rest of the $25 million for the two digesters covered privately.
But some lawmakers are calling on the next Legislature to cut off spending.
“We have dairy cows all over Wisconsin,” said state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield. “Is there going to be a digester in everybody’s backyard, and the state’s going to be on the hook for providing the financial wherewithal for these digesters?
“At some point, we’ve got to be able to say it’s a local issue.”
The state targeted digesters that would remove phosphorus, a chemical element that is abundant in Wisconsin soil and seeps into water supplies. When manure is used as fertilizer, it adds phosphorus to the water.
The Dane County digesters will create enough energy to continuously power 1,500 houses, said Karl Crave, a project manager for Milwaukee-based Clear Horizons LLC, the developer for both Dane County digesters.
“Our natural resources (are) cows and manure, and the crops we grow here,” he said. “We’re maximizing the energy potential in those resources and also helping farmers with nutrient management.”
That’s great, Kanavas said, but the state shouldn’t pay for construction.
“I guess the financial aspects are a little bit lost on me,” he said. “Why should the state be in the anaerobic digesting business?”
Kanavas also expressed frustration that all of the money went toward Dane County projects.
“I understand people say there’s a state interest because the water’s going to be cleaner,” he said. “The water will be cleaner, but the water will be cleaner in Dane County.
“Dane County should take responsibility for this.”
Dave Merritt, director of policy and program development for Dane County, countered that Dane is simply a testing ground for technology that could have wide-ranging benefits for Wisconsin and justify the state expense.
“Wisconsin has more manure digesters than any state in the country — 25 of them,” Merritt said. “However, the other digesters you see here in Wisconsin do not provide the phosphorus removal capability that these digesters are, and that clearly was the reason why the state stepped forward to provide this.”
Also, Merritt said, the state money has provided construction work.
“What once was, just this past August, a green cornfield,” he said, “today is a major 10-acre construction site to begin operation just prior to Christmas.”
The reason Clear Horizons wanted to build in Dane County, Crave said, is because that’s where it can recoup some of its investment.
“Dane County has utilities willing to pay reasonable rates for power,” he said, referencing Madison Gas and Electric Co. “Most projects we evaluate in Wisconsin don’t make economic sense because of the low rate being paid for renewable energy being produced.”
It wouldn’t have been right for the state to withhold money on a second digester merely because of its location, said David Helbach, state Building Commission secretary.
“Our main goal is to make sure the contracts we’ve signed meet the legislative intent,” he said, “and we believe this does.”
The only recourse would be for the Legislature to eliminate future spending on digesters, an action Kanavas and state Sen. Jeffrey Plale, D-South Milwaukee, say should be considered.
“If you look at some of the digesters around the state that are, quote-unquote, privately funded, those are also heavily subsidized with federal and state resources,” Plale said. “It does beg a larger policy question, something the future Legislature is going to have to address.”