Take Five: Area company concentrates on farms and lakes

Feature Take Five John Sorenson Aqua Innovations Panel

Dane County’s a nutrient concentration system by Aqua Innovations is among the new technologies that give farmers better ways manage their farms while preventing phosphorus from getting into local lakes and streams.

A promising company that could solve a seemingly intractable problem is still promising, but it’s also in a pandemic pause of sorts. Aqua Innovations, maker of the NuWay nutrient management system, is still working to sell this novel manure management technology to more farms.

In so doing, the company is pitching both its business and environmental benefits. The system holds the promise of restoring lakes in Wisconsin and beyond by reclaiming millions of gallons of manure as distilled water, a remarkable benefit that strikes a balance between a farmer’s need to expand and the public’s need for clean water. Dane County has installed this system to serve its digestor operation in Springfield, and it could be a source of fascination for potential customers who visit World Dairy Expo because solids are separated, phosphorous is prevented from entering the watershed, remaining nutrients can be applied to farm fields, and environmentally compliant water is produced.

To get a sense of where Aqua Innovations stands at the moment, we spoke to CEO John Sorenson.

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve checked in to monitor the progress of the company — with a pandemic in between — so what can you tell me about sales and other aspects of business development?

“Since that point in time, the company has focused most of its attention on stabilizing and proving the integrity of the [NuWay] system at Sunbow Farm, where it’s been running and running consistently since the installation in June 2018. But we also commissioned the facility that was sold to Dane County, and that’s in the town of Springfield. It was officially commissioned in 2020. So, most of our attention in that time frame has been on those two systems from an operations standpoint. We also brought in Scott Schneider, executive VP of sales. He handles business development. He’s got a great rapport. He’s very well known in Midwest and Wisconsin dairy markets. He’s gotten us into a lot of really fruitful discussions. We have a sales funnel loaded with opportunities.

“One of things we’ve found in the last year in particular is that the nutrient concentration system can be very valuable to anaerobic digesters, so it’s not just a solution for large dairies trying to manage their manure processes and improve and optimize their manure management. It’s also very beneficial for the creation of renewable natural gas through anaerobic digestion, particularly when you have a manure-centric or manure-only feed stream.”

“At Springfield, it’s wasn’t a manure-only stream, and it still isn’t a manure-only stream. That facility has always used substrates for some of its fuel source, but a new group has purchased that … a joint venture with Northern Biogas and Tech Solutions. So, they are going to go to manure only, which when you combine that with nutrient concentration, it really boosts the value of that gas. It therefore becomes a very compelling argument for people that are doing greenfield anerobic digester development.”

Are there any early returns to report from the installation of the system at Sunbow Farm in northwestern Wisconsin? What can you tell us about the feedback you’re getting from the monitoring you’re doing of that system?

“It’s going well. The best calls we get are the ones that happen either late in the fall or middle of the fall or before winter comes in, letting us know that the dairy owner or the operators are done with their manure land application. Thanks to how much discharge water they are getting, they’re able to really reduce the volume of manure that they need to land apply. So, they have been the first in their area to have been, and maybe the first in Wisconsin — who knows because they don’t really measure or publish something like that — but they are extremely fast in having their manure completely out of the lagoon heading into the winter. That allows them a lot more room, and it allows them more slack when it comes to how wet the spring is.

“So, we’ve had really good feedback there. And in general, this is not a digester system. That’s straight manure that we’re operating. It’s been consistently in operation closer to three years than to two years right now, and so we’re at that stage where there’s just a lot of regular maintenance that any system with a lot of motors and membranes is going to require. But the system is running well, and I know that at Aqua, we’re very happy with the way it’s performing.”

Is there any reason a farm could not have both the NuWay system and an anerobic digester if it could afford the capital expense?

“No. In fact, we believe that’s a best practice. We believe that’s what they will do. At this stage, any farm that wants an anaerobic digester wants one so they can make renewable natural gas, not electricity because the money is not there with electricity. So, if they put in a digester and nutrient concentration system, it improves the value of the gas plus it gives the ordinary benefits of improving manure management, smaller lagoons, the ability to expand your herd given a certain lagoon size, the ability to organize your concentrate streams so that one has only dissolved solids and so there is no suspended phosphorous. So, you can use that nutrient steam as the nutrient source on certain fields that otherwise can’t accept manure because it otherwise has legacy phosphorous, or the phosphorous loads are too high. So, without question, a farm would want to have both.

“Unfortunately, it’s been a tough economy, and the last year certainly didn’t help, but for those farms that are healthy and for those farms that are leading-edge when it comes to capital deployment and taking on progressive projects to improve their business operations, that’s absolutely what we’re seeing. Those are the people we’re talking to quite a bit.”

Is your technology, the NuWay system, for any size dairy farm?

“No, I think it probably has a sweet spot for dairies that have, just a broad brush, over 1,000 head, 1,500 head. It’s a scalable system, so we can put a system in at a dairy with 1,000 head, 800 head, and you can have one skid for the ultrafiltration. But then, when you get to say 1,600 head or 1,800 head, we can just add a skid to double the capacity. We can do the same if you get up to 4,000 head, 6,000 head, 8,000 head. The system is designed so that as the volume increases, you just add more equipment. The equipment runs in parallel, not in series, so volume is handled is by diverting it to more processing points.

“Once you get down to a dairy that has got 600 head or something like that, there are too many fixed capital costs to give a real favorable payback. But in that situation, there is a community model. We are seeing and continue to see investors or groups come forward to put up greenfield anaerobic digester developments where they are basically compensating smaller dairies for their manure. They will either truck it to the digester or pipe it. It depends on the geography and where they are positioned. So, the dairy gets some compensation for letting the digester process its manure.”

Are you saying smaller farms could combine on a system?

“Yes, you could either have smaller farms combine on a co-op basis, where they then manage it, or you can have a third party that wants to go in and put together a business that makes renewable natural gas and part of its raw material is the manure it buys from the dairies. So, they in effect contract with the smaller farms to process their manure and return to those farms, if they have NCS, nutrient-concentrate streams, that they will land apply and use for their nutrients.

“So, while I don’t expect our system to be sold to many small farms, I do think it’s possible that you can get centralized processing of manure from smaller farms. Dane County is doing that right now with three farms that are contributing or combining their manure at the Springfield site. Dane County’s goal is to get phosphorous out of the watershed, and the watershed is immense. So, I think Dane County would like to see the smaller and medium-sized farms have the ability to contribute their manure to a set up like they have in Springfield, where they remove the phosphorous through solids removal, composting, and get that land-applied or deployed outside the watershed, and then use NCS to reduce the volume so that there is a less of a tendency from what remains of the concentrates to run into the watershed.”

In 2019, the system was installed at the aforementioned site in Springfield, and we’ve talked to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi about that. At this point, the long-term retention of World Dairy Expo looks promising, which means you’ll get a chance to demonstrate it at this year’s event. Is that still your plan?

“We would definitely plan to participate in World Dairy in some way or another. I’m not sure we’d have a spot on the floor. I don’t know if all the people who walk through those halls are likely prospects for our company, but I do know that we would certainly like to be put on a tour route and we’d love to entertain people with a tour of the facility. We do that regularly at Springfield where we show how it works. You can be inside of our building and in the northwest corner, where centrate [the water leaving a centrifuge after most of the solids have been removed] comes in … and within an hour or an hour and a half, that centrate has been concentrated, put through the reverse osmosis [water purification] system, and the water has been squeezed out of it so that it’s dischargeable to the stream in compliance with the DNR permit.

“I’m not going to say its potable … I never market the water as potable. We market it as dischargeable and cleaner than rainwater and compliant with DNR-WPDES (Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits. But I used the word potable again and it caused an uproar. People thought we were making drinking water out of manure and while some think that’s awesome, others are disgusted and scared because they think we’re putting this discharged water into their pipes and coming out their sink. That’s not the case. But I do drink it when it’s running. It’s fine but because it’s gone through RO (reverse osmosis), it doesn’t have any minerals in it, so it’s not something you can do in volume. But it’s a very, very interesting system to see when it’s up and running. It’s a great tool, so we will definitely and enthusiastically show it off to people at World Dairy Expo.”

What else is there to know?

“It’s important for people to know the system works. When you last reported on it, it had been running for six or seven years at a small dairy farm in [the state of] Oregon. But locally, we hadn’t had an example of it running as long as we do now. I just think it’s important to know that we are the only system out there that is actually, successfully at volume, in real time, concentrating nutrients and discharging compliant water. It’s interesting because when we are talking to prospects, or we’re talking to dairies, some of whom are interested and some who are just learning about it, we get compared a lot to systems that are hypothetically capable, but none of them are actually delivering except ours. So, what I’m been most proud of at this point in time is that we’ve proven over these two years that the system does work, that the system is reliable, and it processes manure for a very cost-effective cost per gallon, and we’re discharging water. That’s not a small accomplishment because manure is very difficult to work with.”

Related story: Ag technology helps farms and lakes co-exist

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