Monday, August 18, 2003

The blackout of 2003 left 50 million Americans in the dark — but it also generated a jolt of vitality for those who advocate alternative forms of power.

“The blackout is going to help our cause. People affected by power loss look for other energy sources, and this is one of them,” said Dan Meyer, an Iowa State University agricultural extension agent who is coordinating tomorrow’s Iowa Manure Digester Conference in Oelwein.

More than 30 pig and dairy farms in the United States now use what’s affectionately called the “waste not, want not” method to generate electricity. Essentially, farm animal manure is pumped into huge, warm, airless tanks — giving off “biogas” as it decomposes.

The biogas is 90 percent methane — which powers engines that in turn generate electricity.

“We’re out to show farmers that this is one thing they can do to get power which does not alter the structure of their operations,” Mr. Meyer said.

He expects 58 persons to attend the conference, which includes seminars in obtaining state grants to finance the pricey digesters, plus the firsthand account of Dennis Haubenschild, a Minnesota farmer who is a veritable guru of manure.

Since 1999, the award-winning Mr. Haubenschild has used manure from his 850 dairy cows to produce 21,000 kilowatts of power a week, or enough to power his 1,000-acre farm — and enough extra electricity to supply an additional 78 neighborhood homes.

The manure, Mr. Haubenschild has told the local press, is worth almost as much as the milk. East Central Energy, the Minnesota electric cooperative that purchases the farmer’s extra electricity, describes his method as “a win-win project for all of us.”

The folks at Big Frog Mountain Corp. agree that last weekend’s blackout sparked a lot of consciousness raising throughout the country.

“The blackout forced folks to try to understand where their power comes from, how it’s measured, how much they need, how much they use. Most people don’t have a clue, and they really struggle with it,” said Big Frog President Tom Tripp.

Business boomed last weekend, he said, with inquiries about everything from solar-powered radios to big residential systems, like the one his company installed for a 22,000-square-foot Georgia home earlier this year, which ranks as the East Coast’s largest private solar system.

“Every time there’s a terrorist attack or a bomb falls, people consider alternative energy,” Mr. Tripp said. “And if we can clear up even some of the confusion out there, that’s half the job. It’s painful to help folks sometimes. It’s like they’re in pain, but they can’t tell you where it hurts.”

Richard Perez, publisher of Oregon-based Home Power magazine ( concurs.

“These big national events — blackouts, ice storms and, God forbid, terrorist acts or sabotage — they do inspire a consciousness raising,” Mr. Perez said. “There’s nothing like having your power go out to make you look for some alternative source.”

In the days following the blackout, the magazine Web site went “crazy,” he said.

The publication offers information on solar and wind power, along with lesser-known alternatives like “micro-hydro” generators — small scale, residential turbines that can be turned by a stream, or even water falling through a pipe system.

“The joyride is over. The old power grid is stretched to it limits,” Mr. Perez said. “People have got to learn how electricity works and how to use it efficiently.”

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