ELOY — Can dairy cows go green? Agriculture, and particularly large-scale livestock operations, have come under scrutiny for their environmental footprint, in particular cattle’s more odiferous byproducts. But new innovations could help turn animal waste into part of the solution for a renewable energy transition.

On Thursday morning, workers broke ground on a joint project between Brightmark and the Caballero Dairy Farm in Eloy, an anaerobic digester complex that will convert organic waste from the dairy into biogas that can then be piped and used as renewable natural gas for vehicles.

This kind of RNG generation would be the first of its kind in Arizona.

“We are super thankful for Craig Caballero putting his trust in our company,” said Zeina El-Azzi, Brightmark’s chief development officer. “Our mission is to reimagine waste as a company. We think this is extremely beneficial for dairy farms and the environment.”

According to El-Azzi, renewable natural gas derived from dairies is one of the lowest carbon-intensive transport fuels available on the market.

Caballero, who owns Caballero Dairy and its 8,800 animals, said that it is an exciting opportunity for his farm, not only to generate new revenue, but as a way to improve water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Caballero said he’d been looking at digester projects and was able to connect with Brightmark’s team through ties with United Dairymen of Arizona.

“We pride ourselves on being good stewards of the environment to ensure our natural resources are protected for current and future generations,” Caballero said. “By bringing this innovative technology to our farm, we are leading by example. We are proud to partner with Brightmark RNG to advance sustainable agriculture and energy production in Arizona.”

In addition to representatives from Brightmark and the dairy, the groundbreaking event was attended by a number of local officials, including two Pinal County supervisors — Kevin Cavanaugh and Jeff McClure — and a representative from U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s office, deputy district director and Eloy native JoAnna Mendoza.

“We’ve had an extremely difficult year and a half,” Mendoza said, “but projects like this, between these kinds of companies, show our resiliency as Americans and as Pinal County residents.”

The way the process works is waste, largely made up of manure, is processed in a digester that separates the biogas from other digestate, which is then turned back into soil products such as fertilizer. The collected biogas is then fed into a pipeline and later converted into fuel or electricity.

One of the key environmental benefits is the digester process prevents methane in manure from being released into the atmosphere.

When operating, the digesters are expected to produce 214 one-millionth BTU of gas daily and reduce 33,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Currently, Brightmark has four similar plants active around the country, with another 11 in development. The company, which specializes in global waste solutions, has 29 RNG projects overall and recently completed a plastics renewal facility in northern Indiana.

The Eloy plant is expected to begin operation in 2022.

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Aaron Dorman is a reporter covering Coolidge and the surrounding area. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.