Cow manure fuels French tractors

A French farmer steps away from his barn and fills up a tractor with fuel made from the manure of his cows, an attempt to put their climate-damaging methane to good use.

Cow manure fuels French tractors
French farmer Bertrand Guerin (C) uses a biomethane refueling station on the farm of the Guerin family, which produces biomethane, also known as renewable natural gas, in southwestern France (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

Anchored by a stone farmhouse, much has changed on the Guerin family farm in the southern Dordogne region since its founding in 1926.

The cow barn is largely automated, and features two huge, partially buried tanks covered with rounded domes that capture the methane emitted from the cow dung.

A dark green filling station with a pump and bank card payment terminal is connected to the facilities — but it isn’t diesel that comes out of the nozzle.

Instead it is bioNGV — renewable natural gas for vehicles — produced on the farm, a substance that is essentially methane.

Cleaner than diesel, it is also cheaper and now powers all the farm’s cars and a new tractor — the first to run on bioNGV that its manufacturer, the Italian-American firm New Holland, began selling last year.

The farm’s owner, Bertrand Guerin, hopes the truck he uses to collect milk will also soon be filling up at his site.

The 59-year-old is also seeking to attract the visitors to the region from Britain and the Netherlands, where cars that run on natural gas are more common.

The filling station is part of a new chain, Biogaz de France, created by an association of farmers producing methane in which Guerin serves as vice president.

Mix and ferment

His concern is that market giants such as Engie and TotalEnergies, which are themselves looking to diversify away from fossil fuels, decide to move into and dominate the market for methane derived from agriculture.

“Let the farmers develop this sector,” Guerin said.

In the vast barn a Montbeliarde cow ambles over to the milking machine.

After giving up several litres of milk — all without any human intervention — she enjoys a spot of massage from a rotating brush.

She calmly steps over the automatic scraper that removes the manure of the farm’s hundred cows from the barn without giving it a thought.

The manure, urine and any hay on the floor is pumped into the domes before any methane is released. 

Methane has a much greater climate-warming power than carbon dioxide, and accounts for a huge share of the climate impact from livestock farming.

Methane, whether it comes from cow burps or their manure, accounts for almost half of French agriculture’s emissions. 

“On all livestock farms we have methane which escapes,” Guerin said.

‘Just the beginning’  

To reduce the carbon impact, that source of destructive pollution is transformed into a cleaner fuel that allows him to reduce his expenses.

Every day 40 tonnes of organic material — two-thirds manure and one-third food waste — are stuffed into the methane dome where it is fermented at 38C.

“We mix it, ferment it. Bacteria break stuff down and CO2 and methane are released,” Guerin said.

Most of the gas produced at the farm is burned to generate electricity that is put onto the power grid and is sufficient for the equivalent of a thousand homes.

Only a fraction is kept to be purified into methane and then compressed for use in vehicles.

What’s left after being digested by the methane dome is used as fertiliser on the farm, allowing for a reduction of synthetic fertilisers made from fossil fuels.

The farm, which includes five associated families and three employees, aims to replace its diesel-burning tractors as soon as possible.

“This is just the beginning of the story,” Guerin said.

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King Charles’s France trip closes with climate focus and a vineyard tour

King Charles III on Friday puts the environment at the heart of the final day of his state visit to France, learning about climate-induced wildfires and visiting a sustainable vineyard in the heart of wine country.

King Charles's France trip closes with climate focus and a vineyard tour

The 74-year-old British head of state – a lifelong environmentalist – wraps up three days of diplomacy aimed at forging closer cross-Channel links after Brexit with a trip to the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

Charles, accompanied by his wife Queen Camilla, 76, had been due to visit in March but civil unrest over unpopular pension reforms forced the trip to be postponed at the last minute.

His rescheduled tour, including a ceremonial welcome at the Arc de Triomphe, a glittering state dinner at the Palace of Versailles, and a landmark address at the Senate, has been largely well-received.

The warmth of his relationship with President Emmanuel Macron has been clear, with Charles setting a slightly more informal atmosphere than would have been the case under his late mother Queen Elizabeth II.

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Bordeaux is well-placed to illustrate the point hammered home throughout the visit about Britain and France’s shared personal, political and cultural history.

It became a British possession in 1152, when the future English king Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, effectively beginning three decades of English dominance in the region, until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453.

The British influence remains: the south-west region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, which includes Bordeaux, is home to roughly 39,000 British expats, the highest number in France.

On Thursday, Charles called for a new Franco-British partnership for the environment – an alliance for sustainability – as part of a wider effort to repair frayed political ties caused by Brexit.

Speaking to lawmakers in the upper chamber of parliament – a first for a British monarch – he notably called climate change “our most existential challenge of all”.

Charles has for a long time warned about the need to protect the environment for future generations, and he praised efforts by governments in both London and Paris for making moves to address the issue.

READ ALSO ‘Anyone who says climate change isn’t real, isn’t a Bordeaux wine-maker’

In Bordeaux, he will find a kindred spirit, Pierre Hurmic, the Green Party mayor who declared a climate emergency after his surprise 2020 election victory.

After engagements in the city, including a celebration of defence ties between the two NATO allies on a British frigate, Charles visits a research centre looking at how forests are adapting to climate change.

Huge fires, fuelled by drought and high temperatures, ripped through the Gironde département near Bordeaux last year.

His last stop before heading home is a visit to Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard, which has become a model of sustainable practice.

The vineyard, founded in the 14th century and named after Scottish former owner George Smith, uses organic compost and carbon dioxide recycling technology, shunning pesticides and herbicides.