By Michael Kanellos
Software giant Adobe (ADBE) wants to explore the viability of cow power.
The San Jose, Calif.-based company is examining the idea of installing an industrial-size fuel cell that converts methane into electricity and heat at its headquarters in San Jose. And, as part of the program, the company is studying if it would be possible to obtain the methane from manure digesters in California's Central Valley, according to Randall Knox, senior director of global workplace solutions at Adobe.
"You keep it from off-gassing (the methane) into the atmosphere," he said.
Like wave power, manure power has been one of those intriguing ideas stuck mostly in the planning stages for years. The potential benefits are enormous. Farmers now have to pay to get rid of their manure and manure lagoons can cause algal blooms and nitrogen run-offs. By putting it into a digester-essentially a big holding tank-- microbes can convert manure into pipeline quality gas. The remaining solids can also be converted into bedding for cows. (With the methane out, it doesn't stink.)
Economically, manure methane can be a challenge. It takes about 20,000 cows at each digester location to break even, according to David Albers, CEO of BioEnergy Solutions. BioEnergy has 30 dairies under 10-year supply contracts and a fixed price contract for gas with Pacific Gas and Electric. In all, there are 70,000 cows contributing gas under these contracts. There are 1.8 million cows in the California Central Valley, Albers told us earlier this year.
Manure companies have also had to experiment with different business models-selling digesters to farmers, setting up digesters as a service and selling the gas to utilities-to make it palatable to farmers and others in the supply chain. Additionally, natural gas prices have dropped in recent years.
And who will Adobe get its industrial-scale digester from? Knox didn't say. But secretive Bloom Energy--backed by Kleiner Perkins--has developed a 25-kilowatt methane fuel cell that can be teamed with others to provide 50 to 100 kilowatts or more of distributed, onsite power. Ebay, San Francisco Airport and a few other high-profile customers have allegedly bought Bloom fuel cells. (Panasonic and ClearEdge Power make similar fuel cells, but these only put out 1 and 5 kilowatts respectively and are designed for residences and small businesses.) Bloom is expected to come out of the closet soon.
What else is going on at Adobe:
--The company has put 20 Windspire turbines from Mariah Power on the sixth floor of its headquarters. With the 14 mile per hour winds that course through the area, Adobe figures it can get 2,500 kilowatt hours a year per turbine, collectively about the same amount of power required for ten homes.
"One of the areas companies need to get more and more into is the production of sustainable energy," Knox said. "Aesthetically and from a price point, these turbines seem to fit the bill
"It is a little difficult in a high rise to get solar to pencil out," he added. (See the video-more in the future.)
If it works, Adobe may expand the deployment of these vertical wind towers. It is already studying wind turbines for its San Francisco offices. No bird accidents have been reported with Mariah turbines, he added. And aesthetically, they do look nice.
--As part of its LEED platinum certification, Adobe adopted software from Optimum Energy to reduce air conditioning bills. Optimum's software dynamically monitors the temperature of the water in the chillers behind the AC system to cut power. The company promises to cut chiller power by 35 to 50 percent and Knox says that the early data indicates that Adobe is getting results toward the top end of that range.