Attempt to develop next generation of technology runs afoul of regulations


Capital Press

John Fiscalini said it was a newspaper article a few years back that sparked his interest in methane digesters.

The article told of coming air and water rules for California's San Joaquin Valley that would soon result in digesters being required at the region's dairies.

As usual, Fiscalini wanted to position the family dairy ahead of the curve. Fiscalini Farms, a 1,500-head operation in Modesto, includes Fiscalini Cheese Co., which markets its high-end product partly on animal-welfare and renewable-power credentials.

The power is coming from what Fiscalini calls the most advanced digester in the West. But that distinction has come with headaches as he has pursued permitting with the valley's air and water boards, which have never dealt with a facility quite like his.

"A lot of what we're doing is hopefully going to benefit agriculture," Fiscalini said. "But we don't want to be penalized by the air board."

As the state grapples slowly with an effort to standardize its permitting formula for digesters, Fiscalini is helping to advance the process. The experience has produced a tenacity, he said -- a drive to achieve victory over a process that has created rules sometimes in conflict with one another.

Officials and lawmakers have visited his digester, and researchers from the University of California-Davis and University of the Pacific are developing data that could help regulators understand its impacts and benefits.

Compared to most methane digesters -- usually some version of a ditch through which manure is cycled -- Fiscalini's operation is high-tech.

Built by Berkeley, Calif.-based Biogas Energy Inc., it centers around two above-ground tanks measuring 26 feet tall and 88 feet in diameter. Each holds 900,000 gallons of waste, which is slowly stirred for several days at 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

A computer terminal displays constant readings on temperature and units of energy produced. The methane runs a large engine that generates electricity, which feeds into the grid of the Modesto Irrigation District.

Fiscalini said he invested nearly $3 million of his own financing, with grants from the U.S. Energy Department and California Energy Commission paying for roughly a third of the project.

After a year of operation, the revenue from electricity has run roughly even with the loan payments, he said. He wants to bring in plant and food waste from outside sources -- a key, he said, to making such a large investment profitable.

But agency rules, which restrict movement of materials to protect water supplies, have created a stumbling block, he said.

"It's not going to pay for itself without some regulatory laws changing," he said.

Fiscalini describes the process as torturous at times. Having intended to position the company ahead of coming regulations, he has found himself instead pushing to formulate the environmental rules that allow his digester to operate.

"Us farmers always say we want to do everything we can for the environment," he said. "But at what point do you become so green that you go out of business?"

John Fiscalini

Position: Owner, Fiscalini Farms and Fiscalini Cheese Co.

Hometown: Modesto, Calif.

Family: Wife Heather; daughters Elaine, 26, and Laura, 27; son Brian, 25

Education: Bachelor's degree in microbiology, Oregon State University

Quote: "Us farmers always say we want to do everything we can for the environment. But at what point do you become so green that you go out of business?"


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