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Biogas A Possible Victim Of Renewable Rollbacks

Dave DeWitt

To a visitor, the hog houses down a dusty dirt road outside Magnolia, North Carolina look like any other hog houses.

Here in Duplin County, there are low-slung buildings like this one around every bend, filled with hundreds of thousands of hogs. But this facility is different—just how different can be found down the hill behind the building.

Manure, flowing from the hog house, falls out of a pipe and into an open-air cement tank. From here, it goes to a much larger, circular, blue tank called a digestor.

“It’s basically an indoor lagoon, is what it is,” says Wiley Williams, the operations manager for Revolution Energy Solutions. On a typical farm, hog manure goes into a lagoon, separates, and then gets sprayed out onto fields.

Here, Revolution Energy Solutions takes the manure from ten hog houses and sends it to two digestors. The methane is then separated, captured and pumped through underground pipes a few hundred yards away to a circular, inflatable storage facility. There, it goes into a generator, where it is burned to make enough electricity for about 800 homes.

North Carolina is second in the country in hog production, and the only state in the southeast with a renewable energy portfolio standard. That makes it a perfect place to become a national leader in the biogas industry.

But some powerful forces have a different idea, and they’re running radio ads to make their case.

“Right now, our leaders can take one vote that would lift our paychecks, create jobs, and boost our recovery,” says one of the ads, paid for by the American Energy Alliance. “That vote is to freeze the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard.”

The ad is part of a last push to freeze the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. That law, passed in 2007, requires electric utilities like Duke Energy to have renewable energy sources make up 12.5 percent of their portfolio by 2021.

The ad puts a further spotlight on the ongoing conflict over renewables within the state’s Republican Party.

Late week the General Assembly held tense budget negotiations, and one of the sticking points was the Renewable Energy Tax Credit.

“You get things and give up things,” says Chuck McGrady, a Republican member of the state House from Henderson County. “I’m a very strong supporter of it. I think it’s paid dividends. But in the end, the Senate would not go along with that.”

The Republicans who don’t like the renewable energy incentives say it’s not fair to offer breaks to some industries and not others. They also say renewable energy is more expensive.

Many of the Republicans who do support renewables come from rural parts of the state. They like the solar industry coming to their region, and they like biogas even more as a way to help the state’s hog farmers.

But if the REPS are frozen, that help probably won’t come.

“It will be challenging for the average farmer who might want to get involved in renewable energy production to be able to without the assistance of the renewable energy investment tax credit,” says Angie Maier with the NC Pork Council.

The end of REPS would be an even more significant blow to biogas development.

Back in Duplin County, Wiley Williams says his wife just rolls her eyes when he goes on and on about the potential for biogas electricity production. He’s worked on or around hog farms for a long time, and he thinks biogas is a game-changer for farms like this one.

“This really works,” he says over the din of the generator. “It really, really works. Right now, we’re exporting power through that connection right there. There’s power going out of here. And it’s usable as soon as it leaves here. We’re creating a product, creating a value. It’s just really cool. It really is. Like I said, I get long-winded when I talk about it.”

Republican leaders have been negotiating the future of REPS behind closed doors this week. A provision to freeze the standard could still show up before the General Assembly adjourns for the year.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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