Nebraska hog farm nears independence through bioenergy

When you talk with Danny Kluthe about the future of agriculture, his eyes light up and a big smile creeps across his face. “The future of agriculture is bright,” says Kluthe. And he knows what he is talking about.

Kluthe and his wife, Josie, have been Nebraska’s farm family bioenergy pioneers since they installed a successful methane digester on their 8,000-head hog farm and grain operation near Dodge in 2006. Always the dreamer, now Kluthe is thinking even bigger, hoping to soon be producing propane from his digester that he can use to heat his hog barns and operate his farm tractors and vehicles, making his farm nearly energy independent.

At a glance

• Kluthes operate Nebraska’s only methane digester on a hog farm.

• The digester breaks down manure and produces electricity for 35 homes.

• With the installation of a “scrubbing” system, it could also produce propane.


Over the past four years, Kluthe has been perfecting his methane digester, tweaking how much manure he feeds into the digester, which he calls a “living thing.” “The digester works,” Kluthe says. “We’ve proven that.”

The Kluthe farm currently produces enough electricity to power up to 35 homes. It took three years for this part of OLean Energy, the company Kluthe and his wife founded, to turn a profit. Now they are looking to the next step.

That step is important to Dan and Josie because their daughter, Danielle, and her husband, Brett Ortmeier, have come home to join the operation. The Kluthe farm has always been a family affair, so adding another generation to the fold brings special gratification.

Scrubbers

The technology to “scrub” or separate impurities, especially sulfur, from methane, converting it into fuel grade propane, has been developing in recent years. Such a system is able to “scrub” impurities from the gas because of the unique chemical properties of each impurity.

Although there are not many working models on a production-sized scale that Kluthe knows of, he firmly believes that such a scrubbing system would work on his farm. If that were the case, Kluthe would save around $30,000 each year in heating costs for his hog barns.

Once a system is installed, Kluthe is just the person to tweak and engineer a farm-grade mechanism that will work. “It’s exciting when you know you can become a lot more efficient,” Kluthe says. It potentially offers one more way that hog waste can provide energy. Propane will become the main energy product, and they will produce electricity only when they have enough propane.

One of the reasons the Kluthe family embarked on the digester project was because they wanted to expand their hog operation, but were concerned about excess odor. “There is a difference between a hostile odor and a good earthy odor,” Kluthe says.

Neighbor-friendly development

Being a good neighbor is important to Kluthe, so he was looking for ways to remove the “hostile” manure odor and produce electricity at the same time.

“Agriculture is the backbone of our country,” Kluthe says. “And livestock are the backbone of agriculture and a good form of economic development.”

He reasons that hog farms provide jobs, use local grain resources and pay taxes. “My hope is that pigs can be a neighbor-friendly form of economic development,” he says. Because of the success of the Kluthe digester and because of the potential for new energy production when the methane scrubber system is in place, he says, “There will come a day when all new dairies and hog finishing facilities will be built with a digester.”

Additional facts on the Kluthe farm


1. Family operates an 8,000-head hog finishing operation and the only methane digester on a hog farm in Nebraska.

2. The covered methane digester is a 14-foot-deep, circular concrete structure that will hold 440,000 gallons of manure.

3. Manure takes 21 days to work through the digester.

4. Billions of bacteria naturally breakdown the manure and produce methane gas.

5. Methane runs a 3306 Caterpillar engine, which continuously powers an 80-kilowatt generator, sending electricity into the power district grid, powering up to 35 homes.

6. The Kluthes formed their own bioenergy company, OLean Energy.


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ENERGY INDEPENDENCE: Visionary hog farmer Dan Kluthe of Dodge has been producing electricity from his hog manure for three years. Now he wants to make propane.

This article published in the July, 2010 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.