Brightmark is a company that has been around for only four years, but considering how far they’ve come in that short time, you’d think it has been for four decades. Which makes sense given the fact that its founder and CEO Bob Powell has been in the energy sector for over 30 years.
“Sustainability” has been a buzzword in the agriculture industry for years, but today’s modern farms really do make that an everyday reality. By working with companies such as Brightmark, larger scale dairy and even pig farms are able to trap methane and have it recycled into renewable natural gas and energy to power homes, business, cars, trucks, even airplanes! Yes it’s true, your next flight might be powered by the almighty cow!
How does Brightmark do it? Through anaerobic digestion, large-scale manure tanks are turned into big “stomachs” that digest all the organic materials, and the gas is captured and sold back to the grid. What’s even better about this is that these biogas facilities are done at no cost to the farm and offer an additional revenue stream to the farm itself. It’s a win-win!
I find this process so interesting that I had to interview Powell myself to learn more. After college, he worked in numerous sectors of the energy industry but it was a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1995, where he really had his “aha!” moment.
“I saw kids playing in open sewers, surrounded by garbage. My son, Sean, was 5 at the time, and I thought, ‘What if this was my son?’ It was then that it hit me. People have no idea about waste and environmental issues like this.”
After working in the energy sector for so many years, he began to notice trends that a lot of companies utilized insurance as a “what if something happens” mentality, but Powell wanted to do better and take a more proactive, rather then reactive, approach. He noticed that businesses were starting to have aggressive goals like “20% renewable energy by 2020” as one example.
He started working with cow manure as an energy source in 2006, but back then it was so expensive. It’s nice to see the progress while earlier this year, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy set new environmental stewardship goals to further the progress and commitment of dairy farmers and the broader dairy community. Although responsible production has always been a focus, goals to be achieved are:
- Become carbon neutral or better
- Optimize water while maximizing recycling
- Improve water quality by enhancing use of manure and nutrients
Another benefit of anaerobic digestion? The process separates the liquids, solids, and gases, where part of the manure can be recycled into clean water while the other part is recycled into livestock bedding and nutrient-rich fertilizer. All of this improves farm economics as well.
With these environmental goals, can we do it? After speaking to experts like Powell, I feel that yes we can.
He turned down a major CEO role as a career opportunity to do something on his own that was more mission focused — to change the world and have fun! August 2020 was Brightmark’s four year anniversary and also the time it partnered with Chevron to give farmers an even better and bigger way to sell methane back to the fuel industry. In addition to helping farmers, Brightmark vows to provide solutions for food and plastic waste as well … it even converts difficult-to-recycle plastics to fuel! Yes you “herd” that right — plastics and manure could possibly power your next home or vehicle.
CAFOs, in particular, sometimes have extremely strict regulations and permitting processes. Wouldn’t it be great to relieve the stress of some of these burdens? By producing renewable natural gas, improving local soil and water quality, the projects earn low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) credits, and farmers can even increase their herd size. All are benefits to modern dairy businesses. Powell has really enjoyed visiting farmers from all across the country who demonstrate their passion for environmental sustainability.
“People who believe farmers aren’t into sustainability are really mistaken,” he says. “They’re closer to the ground and the most sustainably oriented. They’re right there!”
Brightmark is currently growing its farm database of projects which generally consist of a few thousand cows or pigs to start, although some of its sites collect manure from several farms that are clustered. In addition to these farming plans, the company hopes to add food waste projects in the future with a vision to recycle everything and #reimaginewaste. Bye bye, landfills!
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, public speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.