In a project with distinct echoes of the series The Good Life, in which eco-enthusiasts Tom and Barbara Good once made electricity from pig slurry, a north Devon market town is to make a virtue out of one of the area's most unlimited resources.
A pounds 7m bio-gas plant will be built on the outskirts of the small town of Holsworthy, using methane gas formed by the breakdown of cow and other animal slurry to run an electricity generator. In addition, heat from the plant will be used to provide hot water for parts of the town. Work is due to start on the site next month, with completion by late 2000. It will create six full-time jobs.
So far, 50 farmers - who between them own 3,500 cattle - have agreed to supply cow dung for the project, which has a pounds 1.5m grant from the European Union and the further backing of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The farmers will deliver their cow dung - 300 tonnes a day - to two "digesters" at the plant, where it will be heated to 55C over 14 days to release the methane, which will be siphoned off to power two spark-gas engines to produce electricity. Farmers will then return to collect their "degraded" manure, now a nitrate-rich compost 60 per cent less toxic than untreated animal slurry, to lay on their fields.
Cow dung, along with pig and chicken slurry, will make up 80 per cent of the "raw fuel". Fish waste, along with surplus pastry, chosen for its high fat content, from pie factories in Launceston and Camelford in Cornwall, will make up the remaining 20 per cent in an effort to improve the yield of methane. Human waste is excluded, not on ethical grounds, but because it contains too many heavy metals and hormones to work efficiently.
Water from the plant will be piped to the town where it will supply the local hospital, two schools, a sports centre, including the swimming pool, and 300 homes. Charles Clarke, project director and local farmer, says the factory will produce two megawatts of electricity for the National Grid each year, earning pounds 750,000 annually.
The project was inspired by similar large-scale plants in Denmark and by a handful of single farm projects around the UK where cow waste has been recycled to be used on site. "The sheer number of cows around here means this is a green and renewable energy source," said Mr Clarke. "This is the first of its kind in the country and we're certain it can work."
The local council in Holsworthy voted unanimously for the project. "It has to smell better than just chucking unreconstructed cow dung on your fields," said Peter Huggins, clerk to the council. "Holsworthy is primarily an agricultural area and we're surrounded by heaps and heaps of cattle shit." Aware of the marketing potential of the plant, the council has plans for a visitor centre and associated tourist attractions.
But some residents of Holsworthy, fearful of smell pollution, are not so enthusiastic. More than 300 people signed a petition against the scheme.
Peter Southgate, who led a demonstration when the project finally received local authority planning consent last week, said: "I'm worried about the cross-contamination of disease because the process of heating the dung to produce methane won't kill off any pathogens. All this slurry will be mixed up and then given back to the farmers, so one cow's TB may end up on another farmer's field."