Booming cattle industry attracts business

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

When famous bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he responded, “Because that’s where the money is.”

A similar answer could come from Panda Energy regarding its plans to build a 100-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant near Muleshoe that proposes to use a billion pounds of cow manure a year in the production of vehicle fuel.

Simply put, nearby Hereford, and the 100-square-mile-radius which includes Muleshoe, is where the cow manure is.

That area is the “Saudi Arabia of cattle manure,” according to Bill Pentak, communications director for Panda. The estimated 3.5 million head of cattle are a prime reason Panda is building a plant in Hereford and announced plans Wednesday to build a similar plant in Muleshoe.

“We work with the local feed yards,” Pentak said. “As you can imagine, there aren’t that many areas in the United States with that concentration of cattle manure.”

Wanda Hooten, the board president of Muleshoe Economic Development Corporation, said the plant will require 60 skilled labor jobs and about 75 to 80 support jobs.

Estimates are the plant would require about 350 million gallons of water per year, which would come from the Ogallala Aquifer. Hooten said the 380 acres of land for the plant is currently used for growing corn, and water use would simply be traded off for the plant.

Hooten said the board has concerns about any business and whether it will be good for Muleshoe and surrounding communities. The board has looked at Panda’s operations in Hereford and Hooten said from its observations Panda is a good partner with Hereford.

“We want good neighbors,” Hooten said. “If they’re going to use a product, we want them to be a good user, and I think they will be. We’ve come to know them, and we’re excited.”

As manure decomposes, it produces methane gas. What Panda and other companies do is called anaerobic digestion — a process to keep manure in an enclosed system to harness the methane, which is burned off to create steam used to crack corn from which ethanol is produced.

Panda accelerates the process by churning sand in the enclosed environment. John Sweeten, resident director of the Texas A&M University Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Amarillo, said churning the sand helps the environment reach temperatures of 1,300-1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and the manure is added to produce the methane.

“For us to build a 100-million gallon ethanol facility,” Pentak said, “the company determined anaerobic digestion would not work fast enough.”

Because the process happens in an enclosed environment, Pentak said the process is odor-free.

Other products, such as natural gas, can help fuel the energy needed to produce ethanol. However, other fuels aren’t free, and Panda officials believe they can create a win-win situation by getting free fuel from farmers in return for helping them get rid of an unwanted product.

“We are addressing an environmental hazard for the West Texas Panhandle area,” Pentak said. “You will literally find mountains of manure. They pay a lot of money to have that stuff hauled off every year.”

Sweeten said the transaction makes sense because manure is a renewable resource and is free, while non-renewable sources such as natural gas have fluctuating prices. He said it also saves money for cattle feedlot owners, who often pay a middle man to haul manure people buy for fertilizer.

“This provides another alternative demand, and it would be a steady demand,” Sweeten said. “Farmers using manure is highly seasonal. You don’t fertilize your yard on Christmas Day. This plant will take manure on Christmas Day.”

Pentak said there is a careful balance on manure quality, because manure that is either too dry or too wet will not generate enough heat. Sweeten said there are standards to ensure manure is highly efficient for gasification, but normal standards applied for a management process similar to one feedlot managers already use to control air pollution.

“The feedlot operators will need to pay attention to their manure quality, but they won’t have to do anything radically different to serve Panda’s needs.”

After the gasification is complete, what’s left of the manure is an ash substance that can be used in building materials. The materials from the corn include ethanol, CO2 and distilled grains, which are sold back to farmers as cattle feed.

“We’re literally taking it from one end of the cow back into the other end,” Pentak said. “That’s recycling by any definition.”

Much of the driving force behind ethanol comes from the national energy bill signed into law last year by President George W. Bush. The bill requires fuel providers use eight billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, meaning companies are asking for the research of Sweeten and others when it comes to ethanol.

Sweeten said he and Kalyan Annamalai, a professor at TAMU’s mechanical engineering department, have been researching for roughly 30 years on agricultural waste management and its utilization as a biofuel.

“There’s been a resurgence now (on biofuel),” said Sweeten, who said Panda is one of 50 companies who have requested research from him and Annamalai. “We can hardly write grant proposals fast enough, but there were some lean times. The federal, the state, the private sector seems in or out of interest (as time passes).

“I do think the public understands better than ever there is a need for us to (accept) the contribution renewable energy can make. We’re happy for the present situation.”