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Meet the dairy hoping to energy their vans with cow dung

Like many large companies, dairy company Arla Foods has big plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and the company aims to be net-zero by 2050.

Around 85% of Arla's total emissions come from the cooperative of 10,000 farms across Europe, a combination of methane and nitrous oxide from the cows themselves, and fuel used for milking and other operations.

She hopes one of the ways to get there is to use one of the most readily available resources: the manure produced by half a million cows on UK farms alone.

It is in the middle of a three-month trial investigating the feasibility of converting manure into fuel for its delivery trucks and is working with two farms to collect the raw material normally used as fertilizer by farmers.

The manure, along with other materials such as food waste, is placed in an anaerobic digester, which acts like a cow's stomach to create gas that is then purified and liquefied into fuel, which Arla uses to power two of its milk trucks. Arla is currently running the process on two of its farms in Buckinghamshire, a county northwest of London, said Graham Wilkinson, the company's director of agriculture.

"We're collecting it from two farms as part of a trial … but we still have 2,500 (UK farms) in the long run so there is definitely an opportunity to expand. We have plenty of cow dung," Wilkinson told CNBC over the phone.

The British pilot is following a 2019 trial in Sweden where Arla's farms have the potential to produce biofuel equivalent to 54 million liters of diesel (source). That trial showed that driving a truck on biofuel is cheaper than using diesel, but the vehicles themselves are more expensive, Wilkinson said. "The goal would be to go down this path (biofuel) and be more financially profitable than diesel. We have to think differently than diesel anyway," he added.

"For every liter of diesel we replace with biofuels, we're actually reducing our carbon emissions by (roughly) two kilograms. So they actually have some kind of double positive effect on our emissions," added Wilkinson.

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The anaerobic production process also produces a substance called digestate that farmers can use as a natural fertilizer for plants. They usually put manure and manure right on the crops, but that's very watery, Wilkinson explained. "(There's) a harder consistency in the digestate that actually contains more nutrients. Ultimately, what (the farmers) get back is of greater value," he said. Ultimately, Wilkinson wants to reach a point where farmers would no longer need to use nitrous oxide-rich fertilizers, which currently add to carbon emissions.

Another long-term goal is not only to protect the environment and farmers, but also to save money in an industry where the price of milk fluctuates. Farmers urged shoppers to boycott UK supermarkets over milk prices in 2015, while Sardinian producers poured sheep's milk on the streets during a protest in 2019.

“Throughout our supply chain, we tirelessly look at how we do things and how we can simplify them. The potential of this (biofuel trial) is that it could be another example of where we could actually save costs and benefit our farmers at the same time, "explained Wilkinson.

Converting manure to biofuel is not entirely new: a renewable natural gas facility using manure from 33,000 dairy cows opened in Oregon in December while Ugandan company Green Heat International is converting agricultural waste into energy to help households in the To provide electricity to the country.

Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg Getty Images

Great energy

The oil company Phillips 66 wants to generate energy from food waste on a large scale. It plans to spend around $ 800 million to convert the San Francisco refinery in Rodeo, California, into a renewable fuel power plant that it claims will be the largest in the world.

Phillips 66 announced the plan in August. If approved by the authorities, the Rodeo Renewed project would produce 680 million gallons of biofuels annually and is expected to begin production in 2024. Raw materials include used soybeans, edible oil and other fats (known as renewable "raw materials") that are shipped to the plant through the existing ship and rail terminals, said Joe Gannon, senior advisor on external communications at Phillips 66, in an E -Mail to CNBC.

"As the facility is the largest in the world, raw materials are sourced both domestically and internationally and are currently being evaluated to ensure reliable supplies and minimize environmental impact," said Gannon.

Infrastructure is also something Arla wants more of, and Wilkinson wants the government to help build anaerobic digestion plants. "We are relatively confident that this is a viable option financially, but if we don't have the AD (anaerobic digester) facilities to use, we need support," he told CNBC.

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