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NC pork industry: Don’t kill state’s renewable energy mandate

North Carolina’s pork producers are urging state lawmakers not to tinker with a 2007 renewable energy law that requires electric utilities to tap hog manure as a fuel source to generate electricity.

Pork industry officials say they are getting close to turning swine waste into an economically viable fuel and repeated attempts to undo the law will scare off investors from financing these projects.

“We don’t want to see anything about the law get changed,” said Angie Maier, director of policy development at the N.C. Pork Council. “It makes the law look unstable.”

North Carolina, one of the nation’s top hog growers, is the only state in the country that requires hog manure to be used as a fuel source for generating electricity. So far, however, the state has been unable to meet its swine waste energy goals, and electric utilities are expected to request next month that the targets be postponed yet again, for a fourth year in a row.

Conservative critics in the legislature have grumbled that the renewable energy policy subsidizes high-cost energy; for the past three years they have tried to kill, or at least freeze, the state’s renewables requirements. This year’s repeal effort has passed the state House and awaits debate in the Senate.

Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer and processor, told lawmakers in a June 29 letter it has spent $40 million to develop more environmentally-friendly manure management systems as an alternative to lagoons and sprayfields. The company wrote that projects planned on six Smithfield-owned farms alone would double North Carolina’s electric output from swine waste.

If they come to fruition, the projects currently under development would make North Carolina the nation’s largest producer of electricity from swine waste, said Kraig Westerbeek, vice-president for environmental compliance, engineering and operations support at Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield.

They include a former coal-burning power plant in Lumberton set to start burning wood scraps and chicken waste that will seek to expand to include hog manure in its fuel mix. They also include planned anaerobic digesters in which bacteria break down the manure and release a flammable biogas that can be burned for fuel.

“The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard legislation passed in 2007 has given these swine waste-to-energy projects a fighting chance,” wrote Dennis Treacy, Smithfield’s executive vice president. “We feel strongly that that swine waste-to-energy projects will provide a steady source of renewable energy for this state for years to come, while enhancing our efforts in the area of manure treatment.”

In a concession to the state’s pork industry, the current legislative attempt to freeze the law’s requirements would continue to require utilities to use power generated from swine manure and poultry droppings. But Maier said the state’s pork industry wants to keep the law intact instead of subjecting it to “relentless attacks” year after year.

North Carolina’s energy law isn’t limited to swine waste and has been responsible for catapulting the state to fourth place nationally for solar energy development. In recent years solar energy costs have plummeted, so that utilities pay insubstantial subsidies for solar power.

Subsidy rates for animal waste are confidential because they are privately negotiated between utilities and renewables developers, but they are often not acceptable to Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas.

“For swine projects, the lack of market size and experience has resulted in project delays and high costs,” wrote Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks in an email. “Viable projects have been limited due to the small number of developers with direct experience bringing these projects to market.”

Finding cleaner alternatives to hog waste disposal is crucial to the pork industry, which is chafing under a state-imposed moratorium on new and expanded farms. Electricity generation offers one solution to the waste problem – by burning the manure or drawing off biogas as fuel.

North Carolina has eight swine waste-to-energy projects online in the eastern part of the state. These projects collectively have a capacity of 3.9 megawatts, though they don’t always operate at full capacity, said Jay Lucas, engineer for the Public Staff, a state agency that represents the public before the N.C. Utilities Commission. Complications can range from acidity in the biogas, which corrodes equipment, to a porcine virus that has killed up to 10 million pigs in 30 states since an outbreak in 2013.

North Carolina would require about 8 megawatts of such projects to meet its first year requirement for swine waste and about 20 megawatts to meet the requirement in the fifth year under the law, Lucas said.

As it happens, the projects in the pipeline now would give the state about 20 megawatts of swine waste energy, Maier said. Some have already filed for permits with the N.C. Utilities Commission, others are not at that stage yet.

Hog producers supply the “fuel,” but Smithfield seeks only to recoup any additional expenses involved in manure management. The company does not profit from the manure, Westerbeek said.

“This gives us very real, scalable projects,” he said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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