STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's look at an effort to reduce methane emissions. Scientists say that methane is a powerful contributor to climate change. Some dairy farmers in California capture the gas and use it to generate renewable electricity for their farms. But by solving one environmental problem they seem to have run into another.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Lauren Sommer has more.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

LAUREN SOMMER: For nearly 100 years, John Fiscalini's family has run this dairy farm in California's Central Valley.

Mr. JOHN FISCALINI (Dairy farmer): This is a free-stall barn, you know, which holds about 700 milking cows.

SOMMER: This morning, those cows are calmly chewing on breakfast.

Mr. FISCALINI: Happy cows are quiet cows.

SOMMER: And like any other cows, they produce a lot of manure about 100 pounds a day. But that manure fuels some cutting edge technology. Every few hours, it's flushed washed out of the barn and collected in large concrete tanks nearby. The tanks trap methane gas that's released from the manure.

Mr. FISCALINI: The gas bubbles up to the top and then there's a pipe that basically comes from each of the two tanks.

SOMMER: The pipe goes to a nearby generator, which looks like a massive car engine. The generator uses the gas to produce electricity enough electricity to run the whole farm.

Mr. FISCALINI: And our farm is completely renewable in the fact that we don't buy electricity from outside sources.

SOMMER: But this is where Fiscalini's problems started. Like any combustion engine, his generator produces air pollution, which contributes to smog. So, even though the digester is reducing one kind of pollution greenhouse gases it's contributing to another smog, which state air officials are trying to prevent. After having spent $4 million on his digester, Fiscalini had to add a $200,000 pollution control device. He thinks his experience has discouraged other dairies.

Mr. FISCALINI: There is not many people who wish to follow in my footsteps and build something like this, given the fact that they are not economical to build and operate, and most importantly, that there will be two agencies that will be all over you.

Mr. DAVE WARNER (Director, Permit Services, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District): It's not an unusual thing to hear from any industry that we're asking to spend money to control pollutants.

SOMMER: Dave Warner works for one of those agencies, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. He says air pollution here is consistently higher than federal law allows and asthma rates are among the state's highest. And although California has set some ambitious climate change goals, he says those goals shouldn't come at the cost of air quality.

Mr. WARNER: It's been recognized from day one, there should not be sacrifices made to the protection of the public health in the interest of reducing greenhouse gases.

SOMMER: Two other air districts in California have followed San Joaquin Valley and set similar pollution controls, which is good for local air quality, but leaves farmers back where they started.

Mr. ALLEN DUSAULT (Program Director, Sustainable Agriculture): Good intentions, but bad result.

SOMMER: Allen Dusault is with Sustainable Conservation, an environmental group in San Francisco. He says interest in digester projects has waned, especially given the financial downturn.

Mr. DUSAULT: We have a lot of private capital looking to come in and build these systems. And I used to get several calls a week asking me about the different technologies and about the different companies. And today I get almost none.

SOMMER: Dusault says dairy states like Wisconsin and New York are building digesters at a much faster rate than California, since many don't face the same regulations. He says to get things moving again, they'll need to develop pollution control technology that's still relatively affordable. Dairy farmer John Fiscalini agrees that until that happens, the business case for a dairy digester is a tough sell.

Mr. FISCALINI: I really believe it is the right thing to do. It simply needs to be made more available to the masses. The current series of laws that we have don't make digesters profitable.

SOMMER: California state air officials are now taking a look at how dairy digesters are regulated.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

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