In December 2008, Qualco Energy, a nonprofit organization located in Monroe, Washington, activates its anaerobic digester and begins operations. Established by representatives from the Tulalip Tribes, the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, and Northwest Chinook Recovery, Qualco Energy is formed to help increase the sustainability of farms, provide renewable energy, and protect local rivers. Methane produced by the digester from cow manure and other organic waste will be used to power a 450-kilowatt generator, enough electricity to supply up to 300 homes.
Saving Fish, Saving Land
In 1990 Dale Reiner, a cattle rancher in the Tualco Valley in Snohomish County, needed a way to protect his land, which was falling victim to erosion damage caused by a major flood. According to Reiner, "I wanted to save what I got" ("Spawning a Solution …," 5). But Reiner sought the assistance of local conservationists. Reiner met with John Sayre of Northwest Chinook Recovery, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to protect salmon habitats in the Puget Sound region.
During his visit to Reiner's ranch, Sayre recognized Haskell Slough as an old river channel that could provide rearing habitat for salmon, which over the years had experienced a dramatic decrease in numbers. Northwest Chinook Recovery joined Reiner, the Tulalip Tribes, and state and federal agencies to preserve the integrity of the slough and its salmon populations while also helping Reiner protect his land from further erosion. After their joint efforts on the Haskell Slough project, the Tulalip Tribes, Northwest Chinook Recovery, and the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance decided to continue collaborating and they formed Qualco Energy to carry forward its members' environmental work.
In addition to decreased salmon populations caused by overfishing, local rivers face other environmental challenges, and the Skykomish River was listed under the federal Clean Water Act as an impaired body of water. According to a 1995 Washington State Department of Ecology report, the greatest problems facing salmon streams were an increase in fecal-coliform levels and a decrease in dissolved-oxygen levels. Many environmental factors can impact water quality, but one major cause is runoff. This is primarily due to manure from farms, but also comes from other sources. It was this problem that Qualco Energy decided to take on.
The Qualco Energy facility was established with help from a $3-million federal renewable energy loan, a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a feasibility study, and $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. These contributions and loans, along with other funding sources, were paired with donations from Qualco Energy's partner organizations. Washington state donated land that was previously owned by the Department of Corrections and was worth between $1.5 and $2 million.
From Manure to Methane
In the Lushootseed language of the Salish people, "qualco" means "where two rivers come together." Werkhoven Dairy is located at the confluence of the Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers and, like many dairy operations, it was a significant source of manure runoff into the rivers. Daryl Williams, a Qualco board member and environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, worked with the Werkhoven family to begin tackling the waste problem with an anaerobic digester, which uses microorganisms to convert manure and other organic waste into methane.
In 2016 Werkhoven Dairy had about 1,300 cows whose manure would be processed by Qualco Energy's anaerobic digester. At the farm, the manure is washed down to a central point, where it is processed -- cleaned, concentrated, and moved to a storage tank. When the storage tank reaches capacity, its contents begin a one-mile journey south via pipelines to the Qualco Energy facility.
Once the manure has arrived at the facility, an anaerobic digester that holds approximately 1,452,000 gallons converts manure into methane. The manure is mixed with pre-consumer food waste which includes, among other things, cheese whey, restaurant grease, and fish parts. The pre-consumer food waste cannot make up more than 30 percent of the total mixture.
The methane that is produced by the digester is used to run a generator 24 hours a day, producing about 450 kilowatts, or enough electricity to power 300 homes. In the beginning, Qualco Energy sold this electricity to Puget Sound Energy. As of 2016, all of the electricity produced at Qualco has been purchased by Snohomish County PUD.
Qualco Energy creates renewable energy, reduces the amount of runoff that enters into local streams, and produces compost that is more easily absorbed into land. According to Daryl Williams, "The river is our lifeblood. The tribes were here when salmon first arrived, and all of our cultural practices include having salmon" ("Digester Generates More Than Electricity"). Qualco efforts are intended to help ensure the vitality of local salmon populations for years to come.