North Carolina 'hogs' electric spotlight

By Sarah Smith
A Methane Capture Pilot Program, which stemmed from the Swine Farm Environmental Performance Standards Act passed by the North Carolina Senate in July 2007, will begin providing swine-powered electricity to state residents by 2010. So far, approximately 200 swine producers have expressed interest in the methane program, and 50 finalists will be selected this summer.

"We had a swine integrator come in and say it was going to enroll all its farms," said Vernon Cox, chief of the Technical Services Section of the North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation, which will administer the registry for the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources in partnership with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. "Currently, the utilities commission is in the process of establishing an appropriate rate to allow these producers to recover their costs for installing the systems," Cox said. Rates will be capped at 18 cents per kilowatt- hour, according to the legislation.

The chosen finalists will sell to utility companies the electricity produced from methane generated in their waste systems in full or partial lagoon covers. The methane will be converted to electricity through biogas generators. Each selected farm must enter into a seven-year contract because state officials anticipate lower costs in each year of the program. Initial profits will be minimal, but they are expected to rise annually as hog producers become more efficient at producing the biogas.

Although the number of North Carolina hog farms has decreased over the years due to state moratoriums slowing growth, the state is second in the nation-behind Iowa-in hog production.

In past years, North Carolina hog waste was allowed to be stored in lagoons and then sprayed onto crops as a fertilizer, giving hog farmers an added revenue stream. When environmental advocates lobbied for stricter controls over this process, hog associations looked to environmentally palatable uses for the lagoons and suggested the methane proposal to the legislature in 2006.