When it comes to generating renewable energy, Wisconsin lacks the high winds of the Great Plains and the steady sunlight of Arizona, but it has one abundant resource few others can match – cow power.

Although renewable energy makes up only a fraction of the state’s total energy mix, one area that’s growing fast is systems that convert cow manure into electricity and heat.

At the Crave Brothers dairy farm and cheese factory in Waterloo, the farm’s anaerobic digester – its cow power system – takes manure from the farm’s 1,100 cows and converts it to electricity.

Rising demand for the company’s specialty cheeses led to an expansion that will add a second digester and triple the amount of electricity the farm produces.

“They process their own milk, and the demand for the specialty cheeses they make has increased enough to justify an expansion,” said Dan Nemke, general manager of Clear Horizons, which provides the digester.

Clear Horizons estimates it invested $4 million in the Waterloo system.

Wisconsin leads the country in anaerobic digesters with 19 projects. California is second, with 16.

“And we have 16 projects under contract right now set to go in, so we should be doubling the number of digesters in this state in the next year,” said Don Wichert, director of renewable energy with the state Focus on Energy program.

Behind the surge in interest in homegrown energy is the recognition that what once was waste now has value. That can include anything from cheese whey to restaurant grease to cow manure.

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