Hate High Energy Prices? Eat More Cheese.

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An accounting firm called Baker Tilly (“Candor. Insight. Results.”) sent me an e-mail last Thursday with the following subject line:

Waste to Energy at International Cheese Technology Expo

It took me a little while to get my head around the full power of this beautifully terse and irresistibly earnest pitch. We were dealing here not just with cheese technology, but an entire expo devoted to it. Moreover, during this expo the benefits of converting cheese production waste into energy were, apparently, to be discussed. This cleverly front-loaded twist—“Waste to Energy”—was, on its own merits, a near-perfect teaser. Are we talking whey? Cow dung? (Both, it turns out!) It was almost impossible not to read on.

I don’t need to tell you that cheese technology is big business. Not for nothing is Baker Tilly, a serious and fast growing firm with $242 million in 2011 revenue, co-sponsoring the International Cheese Technology Expo (ICTE) and its eagerly awaited April 12 keynote speech by “Miracle on the Hudson” co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Sully sadly unavailable). Americans eat a lot of cheese, reports “Amber Waves” the USDA’s award-winning eZine on the economics of food, farming, natural resources and rural America : “Average annual U.S. cheese consumption nearly tripled between 1970 and 2003, from 11 pounds per person to 31 pounds,” reports Amber Waves. Take a look at this graphic:

(Fascinating side note: thanks to the well-documented post-70s Mozzarella surge, that favorite pizza topper passed cheddar in 2002 as America’s most popular cheese.)

Now, if you think tripling our cheese consumption over 33 years is a problem, you’re wrong: it’s an opportunity. Few things are more American than using technology to ameliorate indiscipline. Gargantua-level consumption of cheese is to be embraced, not scorned, for the desperately needed energy it can help our country produce. All major politicians in both parties have embraced an “all-of-the-above” energy policy; what part of “all-of-the-above” does the anti-cheese-waste-energy lobby not understand? I called Baker Tilly marketing manager, Trula Hensler, to find out.

America’s cheese waste energy boom is an equal-parts by-product, as it were, of America’s love of farm subsidies and President Barack Obama’s green energy push. Baker Tilly is at the forefront of helping firms milk the opportunities. Says Hensler, “We’ve had a lot of experience with anaerobic digesters, from the financing portion to the engineers, [but] a specialty in our firm are the tax credits and incentives that work into this.” I asked what anaerobic digesters were; Hensler just laughed. If you must know, they’re biogas facilities that take manure, crop waste and other things, mix them with special bacteria in an oxygen free environment and turn them into methane. Here’s a PDF.

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Baker Tilly says there’s a lot of money to be made tapping into government tax credits for biorefining via anaerobic digesters. A food processing company that needs to expand its business and builds a $10 million anaerobic digester plant, for example, can cut their costs by 50% in part by using Obama’s green energy tax credits, write Brad DeNoyer and Cory Wendt of Baker Tilly. And then there are the federal subsidy programs like those at the Department of Agriculture funding biogas refineries at farms since 1994. President Obama’s 2013 budget calls for $6.1 billion in loans to rural electric utilities and cooperatives for renewable energy promotion.

How much energy do the rest of us Americans get for all these subsidies? Well, in 2011, the U.S. produced 541 million kilowatt hours of power at 176 digester plants, up from 200 million kWh in 2007. Which is great news. America used nearly 3,884 billion kWh of electricity in 2010, so if we can take our cheese consumption up to something like 236,917 pounds per person per year–650 pounds a day give or take a wheel of Monterey Jack–our energy problems will be solved.

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