Dominion Goes Whole Hog for Waste-to-Energy

Hog waste farm: from methane polluter to renewable energy source.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Energy and Smithfield Foods are investing a half billion dollars to capture methane from hog farms and convert it to “renewable natural gas.” The partnership aims to become the “largest renewable natural gas supplier in the U.S.,” according to a press release issued Wednesday.

A few days ago, I noted how Dominion had sold a $2 billion stake in its Cove Point liquefied natural gas project as part of a larger restructuring of the company away from businesses exposed to market forces in favor of regulated businesses like electric utilities and gas distribution companies. I wondered if Dominion now sees its competitive advantage as its ability to manipulate the regulatory and legislative process.

This new venture, Align Renewable Natural Gas, suggests that Dominion hasn’t abandoned risk-taking ventures entirely. Dominion is making a $250 million bet that a “waste-to-energy” model, demonstrated only in pilot projects, can be implemented nationally. I don’t recall the company having taken a risk of this magnitude to create an entirely new business model before.

Dominion and Virginia-based Smithfield, the nation’s largest hog processor,  collaborated to develop the process in several pilot projects. Waste from hog farmers’ manure lagoons undergoes a bacterial process called anaerobic digestion that produces a mix of methane and CO2. The gases are piped to a central processing facility serving clusters of 15 to 20 hog farms. The processing facility reduces the moisture in the gas so it meets gas pipeline standards and can be distributed to users. The methane, a potent greenhouse gas, otherwise would be emitted into the atmosphere.

“After researching ways to transform manure into renewable energy for nearly two decades, Smithfield, together with our partners, has developed a proven business model that can be expanded at scale across the country,” said Kenneth M. Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods in the press release. In 2016, Smithfield was the first protein company to adopt a far-reaching GHG reduction goal across its supply chain. In 2017 the company launched Smithfield Renewables. Then in 2018, Smithfield partnered 50/50 with Dominion to create Align RNG and, in Sullivan’s words, “transform the future of sustainable energy and agriculture.”

Smithfield expects the “manure to energy” model will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% across the company’s supply chain while creating an additional revenue source for farmers and bolstering the nation’s supply of natural gas. When fully scaled, the greenhouse gas reductions will equate to taking 500,000 cars off the road or planting 40 million new trees. (Not mentioned in the press release: Smithfield is owned by the China-based Shuanghui Group. China, the world’s largest producer of pigs, could be a massive market for the technology.)

“Our partnership is revolutionizing the future of sustainable energy and agriculture in this country, and we are thrilled to partner with Smithfield to grow this exciting new industry,” said Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Energy’s Gas Infrastructure Group. “We’re capturing 25 times more greenhouse gas emissions from the farm than are ever released when the gas is used to heat homes or power businesses.”

“It’s incredible how much environmental progress we can make through the power of innovation and partnerships,” said Sullivan. “There are many synergies between our two companies that allow us to advance this technology on a wide scale. We share a strong commitment to innovation and sustainability, and together we have the technology and market expertise to make this work.”

Bacon’s bottom line: From what I can glean from the press release, Smithfield and Dominion are shouldering the entire financial risk from this venture. I’m presuming that the venture will sell its natural gas into the marketplace in competition with other natural gas suppliers. Fortunately, Align LNG came along before environmentalists and politicians concocted some scheme for regulating hog-waste emissions and foreclosing a creative market-based solution.

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24 responses to “Dominion Goes Whole Hog for Waste-to-Energy

  1. Truth is that pigs, massive pig farms, and fossil fuels are the root solution of all our global warming and related environmental problems. See for example this from Oxford University:

    “A widely-used gas that is currently produced from fossil fuels can instead be made by an ‘artificial leaf’ that uses only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, and which could eventually be used to develop a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol.

    The carbon-neutral device sets a new benchmark in the field of solar fuels, after researchers at the University of Cambridge demonstrated that it can directly produce the gas—called syngas—in a sustainable and simple way.

    Rather than running on fossil fuels, the artificial leaf is powered by sunlight, although it still works efficiently on cloudy and overcast days. And unlike the current industrial processes for producing syngas, the leaf does not release any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

    Syngas is currently made from a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and is used to produce a range of commodities, such as fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fertilisers…” End Quote.

    For more see https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/10/25/artificial-leaf-successfully-produces-clean-gas/

  2. This project deals with a nasty environmental situation and makes it a little less nasty. Water and air quality issues from concentrated animal feeding operations have wreaked environmental havoc for decades. It is only the huge financial resources of the multinational meat industry that has postponed dealing with the issue effectively.

    This project reduces the methane emissions so that is a plus. Dominion will gain some green-washing points for it. But now that industrial design has added a new revenue stream, this unsustainable agricultural and energy project is likely to perpetuate an out-of-balance process far longer than it should continue. These industrial-scale livestock operations reduce animal health which can result in reduced human and environmental health.

    A profit calculation that ignores externalities promotes faulty decision-making.

  3. So a possible solution becomes a problem because people should not be allowed to eat meat, or drive cars, or use more electricity? That sounds like a flat earth approach dismissing all progress if it does not fit someone else’s ideology.

  4. The raleigh news and observer won a pulitzer for a series on badly managed hog waste on super farms. Maybe this is a solution

  5. I am “bullish” on waste-to-energy.

    • “We’re capturing 25 times more greenhouse gas emissions from the farm than are ever released when the gas is used to heat homes or power businesses.” Not sure what that means or why Dominion is claiming to be a ‘revolutionary’ in the Bio-digester business …

      Gotta say I too am bullish on bio-digesters but nowhere have I seen utilities involved.

      Bio-digesters have been around for the past 7-8 years. There are a lot of varieties and their basic value is to deal with the manure/environmental problem of farms big and small. Farm production of GHGs is listed as 7-14% of total GHG emissions, so dealing with farm methane will be some help with the climate issue. Most bio-digester don’t capture the methane for resale. They turn it into electricity.

      Here is a write up on an early bio-digester installation …
      “Dairy cow manure is the resource to generate renewable energy. The manure is collected and heated, creating the natural byproduct of methane gas. That bio-gas is the fuel used to power the generators and create electricity.” 135 cows produce 500,000KW/hrs of electricity.

      “The manure digester process has additional environmental benefits, reducing animal waste problems associated with manure disposal on farms. The odor is greatly reduced, and weed seeds and pathogens are killed during the digestion process, thus lessening the need for herbicides and pesticides on the farm. Another useful byproduct is bedding that can be used in the dairy, or sold by the farmer.”

      There is a bio-digester installation in New England at Cabot Creamery and a nearby coop farm where all of the power needed to operate the Creamery is provided by the nearby farm’s anaerobic digester. The digested manure and food waste is used at the farm as a chemical-free fertilizer and has helped to increase hay and corn yields. Nice.

      Back to Dominion … what I read is that places like Duke University, the Univ of Iowa and Google, who gets RECs from their investment, are the investors and developers of this fairly new market. CA and Wisc have been active as states, and in China small bio-digesters are being sold in rural areas as septic fields. NC is particularly interested because of the eastern NC waste lagoons, especially now that storms have become an issue.

      What exactly does Dominion’s plan do for Smithfield’s lagoons? Will it keep them from causing environmental damage in a bad storm?

      • Re: “‘We’re capturing 25 times more greenhouse gas emissions from the farm than are ever released when the gas is used to heat homes or power businesses.’ Not sure what that means” — I don’t know either, as DE’s statement is an exercise in “PR-speak.” Taking the words literally, it means that the total physical quantity of greenhouse gases of all kinds captured at the pig farm is 25 times the sum of the quantity of gas “released” during fracking (well leaks) and transportation (pipeline/compressor leaks) plus the emission product “released” by the customer upon combustion. However I doubt this literal meaning was intended. More likely, it is a weighted-impact comparison of the greenhouse effect avoided by “capturing” the methane that would have been emitted by all those pigs and pig feed at the Smithfield facility and injecting that into the pipeline, versus the methane “released” either due to extraction and system leaks between the well and end-use, or the CO2 released upon combustion by the end user. Unclear whether the harmful effect of CO produced in the atmosphere by naturally degrading CH4 is included. In short, DE makes their facility sound terrific but who the hell knows what “25 times” means?!

  6. The Nazis, of course, had a synthetic fuel solution and people have been working on converting coal to liquid fuel for decades. This – and the various efforts underway to prevent release of methane in the natural gas production and transportation process – simply awaited or await a way to make it profitable. Methane has market value, after all. Methane = money.

    The meat industry probably hopes this will end the push from some to just stop us from eating so much meat because of the “climate crisis.” (Tom, sounds like you are in that camp?) The hope for the end of that pressure is in vain.

  7. I’m curious if the money Dominion is using is the money they were allowed to keep from ratepayers….is this that money?

    In terms of CAFOs – i.e. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – it’s not only hogs, it’s poultry and when you get right down to it – it’s a LOT of poop from humans in urban areas wastewater treatment AND landfills.

    With the advent of plant-based “meat” – https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/
    and people’s concern about climate change being said to be connected to raising animals – we might see changes… faster and sooner than later.

    Plant-based food may have other advantages also for 3rd world and developing countries.

    but I’m still wondering if Dominion is really risking it’s own money… anyone know?

    • I can’t tell you up front whose money is at risk. The way it used to be done in utility rate cases was, a venture such as this that was utility-related but primarily for image-building and feel-good publicity would be undertaken as an operating expense, which would be included in the expenses in the “test year” in the utility’s next rate case (in “test year” ratemaking the year is usually a calendar year at least 6 months in the past). During that rate case, in public hearings, the utility company and the intervenors would argue over whether that expense was sufficiently in the interests of the ratepayers to be included, or disallowed — usually based on whether it actually lowered the utility’s cost of service for the test year — or, at least, whether it was “good” on balance based on some sort of externalities analysis that held up to criticism — and the Commission would decide whether to allow, i.e., include, that expense. A past test year is a key measure of the reasonableness of future rates — in addition, the test year income, expenses and balance sheet normally are adjusted up or down to better represent the future period during which the rates will apply.

      Now that’s a long winded answer to your question. Yes, it is literally true, “Dominion is really risking its own money” at the time it spends it. And, Dominion’s “own money” ends up being, of course, the shareholders’ money if not reimbursed by the ratepayers through their utility rates. But wait! It isn’t much of a risk if the Company is confident that the Commission will “allow” the expense to be included in test year expenses in the course of the next rate case.

      It’s even less of a risk if the Commission has already endorsed the project in principle through public statements, or in a prior order. Even less risk if the Commission has already approved an automatic rate adjustment clause (RAC) for that project’s expenses to be recovered immediately, rather than waiting until the time of the next “base” rate case. Even less risk if the GA has already passed a law instructing the Commission that this is an expense that is pre-judged by the GA to be in the ‘public interest’ and 100% recoverable, dollar for dollar, from ratepayers. Indeed that last category is Zero Risk.

      Theoretically, this facility is being built to provide a supply of gas, and therefore will be assessed against Dominion’s retail gas ratepayers, or recovered as a wholesale purchase of gas by Dominion’s gas system. I don’t have enough information to tell you how Dominion intends to recover this cost from its ratepayers — or which ratepayers — but you can be assured, one way or another, they will try.

  8. So if the left is so concerned with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, such that some have called for changing our diets and limiting the number of children Americans have, why do most of them support open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants, especially when recent immigrants tend to have more children than current residents?

    Jane Fonda and Ted Danson were arrested in D.C. during a climate change protest. How did each of them get to Washington? Did they fly coach? In any event, shouldn’t they each be flight shamed? Or did they take Amtrak? Drive a Tesla?

    As far as human poop is concerned, the City of Alexandria still dumps it in the Potomac when it rains hard. But the city council is against greenhouse gasses.

    Good thing Dante’s Inferno is just a book.

    • Ah, TMT, the hypocrisy of it all. So “the city council is against [things that cause] greenhouse gasses” — unless the source of the gas is washed downriver to another jurisdiction? Begs the question what if anything Alexandria will do about greenhouse gasses already in the water or the air from upstream/upwind jurisdictions. Sue them? Sue the State air quality authorities? Sue the EPA? Or merely sue its own citizens for adding their iota of bad air? Or take recycling, which actually costs some jurisdictions more than they make on the recycled waste (especially now that China won’t take it all, and Fairfax won’t even try to recycle my waste glass)?

      Of course there’s really doing something effective to abate the problem and then there’s feel-good posturing — which nevertheless gets defended as ‘everyone doing their part,’ on grounds of awareness, of education, of publicity for The Cause. At some level of pain that becomes counterproductive.

      • Yes and the Republican controlled General Assembly should have put forth legislation to ban all new development in Alexandria until they stopped flushing raw sewage into the Potomac River. Northam would have vetoes the bill but it would illustrate the hypocrisy of the Democrats who run Alexandria and who will soon run Virginia. So why didn’t this happen? Oh right … real estate developers pour money into the state government. They stuff the pockets of both parties. How silly of me to forget the first law of Virginia politics – they’re all corrupt.

    • Don’t get me started.

  9. Pingback: Dominion Goes Whole Hog for Waste-to-Energy - News | Green Pig Solutions

  10. What we don’t know with certitude is if there is a safe “carrying capacity” for greenhouse gases. In other words, if we cut them to some level will the climate “balance” and become stable?

    We THINK we have done that with changes to CFCs and the Ozone holes.

    The idea is NOT to stop heating and cooling one’s house, or stop using a car or even a train or METRO or airlines and if you don’t you’re not “committed”.

    That kind of thinking comes from global warming skeptics who really are not interested in TRYING comprehensively to move us to a better place so they just throw stones at those who want to – and leaders of the effort to do so.

    Such folks basically have a half-glass full perspective of doom and gloom – i.e. “we’re all doomed anyhow so why try?”.

    These folks have always been around… they were around when we were dumping DDT and Kepone and PDBs into the environment – to them it was about huring the economy and killing jobs – that we were overcreacting to the environment. Those folks staunchly opposed the clean water and clean air act … not to mention the part about CSOs that a lot of our cities have.

    So we ignored those folks and moved ahead and so now – even though Arlington and Alexandria (and others) still dump human poo during high rain events – they DON’T dump poo on a regular basis like they used to and the result is a much cleaner Potomac and Chesapeake bay and NO ONE had to stop using the toilet to prove their “purity” on the issue.

    We’re not there yet but we’re moving in the right direction and we WILL do so with greenhouse gases also – despite the virulence of the naysayers… who really are just part of the problem as usual.

  11. Or as mother too often reminded me “People who live in glass houses … .” It’s often tough to walk one’s talk consistently; we all fail. But the ones who get the most publicity rarely try.

    Recycling methane seems like a good idea. If so, it’s probably a step forward. Why in trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is forward progress bad unless we all live impossible, inhuman lives?

    Whether Dominion should be doing this as a regulated investment is another issue.

  12. Steve,

    I am not saying that meat per se is the problem. It is the way we produce the meat. Meat that is produced in an industrial process creates many problems. These include unhealthy Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios which contribute to cardiovascular disease. Livestock raised in a sustainable biological way have a balanced Omega 3 – Omega 6 ratio, reducing inflammation in those who eat the meat.

    Animals raised on food that their systems are designed to digest produce CLA, which actually improves cardiovascular health. Over 85% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in livestock production, greatly contributing to the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    The sludge that is produced from the digestion process must be disposed of somewhere. Typically, it is spread on rural land with little awareness of what happens to the concentrated chemicals that result from the digestion process.

    I recognize that this project reduces methane emissions compared to the current practice of using open lagoons. However, it is mostly like putting lipstick on a pig. Things appear to be better, but the fundamental nature of industrial agriculture system has not changed.

    Most of the U.S. farm subsidies go to a small fraction of the producers, many of those who receive the subsidies live in cities. Concentrated animal feeding operations are great tax havens. The environmental and health costs from this type of agricultural system is hidden making them very profitable because it avoids having to pay the external costs they creates. Industrial ag has hollowed out our small towns. What we have saved in reduced food costs has more than been made up in higher health care costs.

    Just like our energy system, our agricultural system is based on a flawed design that makes things very profitable for a few and the damage is borne by many.

    Turning biological processes into industrial ones has created many problems that we have not yet fully dealt with. The money made from these distorted practices is enormous. Certainly the operators can afford the advertising and PR to make us believe it is something other than what it actually is. We are immobile frogs in the pot and the temperature keeps rising.

  13. The scientists tell us we are past the point of simply recycling methane. We have to stop relying on fossil fuels to run our society and methane is actually worse than CO2. In their report, titled “Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks,” a team of eight scientists warns that “anthropogenic emissions need to peak within the next 10 years, to maintain realistic pathways to meeting the COP21 emissions and warming targets.”

    So, I would like to urge all you naysayers and doubters to follow the climate/fossil lawsuits. The N Y-Exxon case opened in Court this past week and turns on how Exxon knowingly misled investors. The case is unique to NY because of N Y’s fraud law, but MA filed a similar case last week. Both cases were initiated in 2015 after the award winning accounts by Inside Climate News. and later by the LA Times, detailed what and when Exxon scientists knew, and reported to the company, about how greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use would affect our climate and the company’s strategic response to ‘create doubt’.

    The first presentation from the company’s scientists is dated 1982. Physicist Martin Hoffert, who worked on climate science at Exxon in the 80’s, says … “Whatever its intent—willful ignorance, stymying an effective response to preserve quarterly profits, or simply an incomprehensible refusal to incorporate their own world-class research and results into their business plans. … What they did was wrong, … deliberately creating doubt when their internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was.”

    Evidently, the company kept 2 sets of books, one public and one not, regarding the climate risks of the industry, NY argues that a lower estimate for future carbon costs made high-polluting oil projects look like more attractive investments.

    Another lawsuit, Juliana vs. United States, has been wending its way through the Courts since 2015. The suit was filed by a group of children and young adults who accuse the federal government of violating the Public Trust by failing to take action on climate change and continuing to promote and subsidize fossil fuels.

    ‘Public Trust’ arguments are a long-established doctrine from Roman times that have been carried forward in common law for generations. The doctrine asserts that natural resources are the birthright of the public, and the government is responsible for preserving the resources for this and future generations.

    The government has challenged the standing of the Children to bring the case, but the case itself is far reaching. A 60 Minutes presentation said … “The Children’s ”lawsuit claims the executive and legislative branches of government have proven incapable of dealing with climate change. It argues that the government has failed in its obligation to protect the nation’s air, water, forests and coast lines. … And it petitions the federal courts to intervene and force the government to come up with a plan that would wean the country off fossil fuels by the middle of this century. “

    The revolutionary part of this case is not that the government, which cannot dispute the facts of the case, caused global warming, but that it is not doing its duty to stop the global emissions that are causing climate change AND that government actions are actually supporting the emitters. A win for the Children would mean a lot of legislative changes, to put it mildly. (The climate change lawsuit that could stop the U.S. government from supporting fossil fuels,)

  14. Jane, these lawsuits all revolve around the malicious execution of laws and regulations written many years ago. Hopefully that malice will be eliminated from executive authority after January, 2021. But then what? We still will need new laws and new regulations addressing what we now know about climate change, not merely the revitalization of old ones. We still will have to build national support for something very different than we’ve ever dealt with effectively in the past: global leadership on climate change. That national support today is deeply fractured and entirely lacking among many voters and (as a result) largely thwarted when it comes to votes at least in the Senate. By what authority can the Judiciary break this stalemate on its own? ‘Public trust’ and addressing climate change simply are not Constitutional responsibilities which the Judiciary can (or will) enforce without the authority of existing law, or Congress’ and the Executive’s cooperation in making and enforcing new laws and rules.

    • Acbar, Agree with most but gotta disagree on the primary issue …

      1. We will need new laws and new regulations addressing what we now know about climate change …
      Absolutely … We have laws about toxic releases, including the ozone layer protections. We can do GHG too. Not sure about new basic environmental laws for air and water but what should not happen is that each President has changed the regulations used to enforce the laws and that is not a stable structure for either business or any enforcement efforts.

      2. Build national support for something very different than we’ve ever dealt with effectively in the past: global leadership on climate change …
      Maybe the Montreal Protocol would be a better template than Paris, though we need to be in the Paris Agreement. Adopted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol aimed to regulate the production and use of chemicals that contribute to the depletion of Earth’s ozone layer. Initially signed by 46 countries, the treaty now has nearly 200 signatories. Each country did not come up with its own level of commitment. AND we need to address the issues related to global companies, many of which are American.

      3. I agree that Congress, as currently constituted, couldn’t pass effective national goals or legislation, but globally only 20 corporations are responsible for 1/3 of all carbon emissions since 1965. Any real change must dismantle the basis of their success in the face of their political power. An end run might be the best actions to start with.

      4. By what authority can the Judiciary break this stalemate on its own?
      As I understand the Children’s Trust lawsuit the government is using your argument as its defense. In court hearings, in briefs, the “Justice Department argues that energy policy is the legal responsibility of Congress and the White House, not a single judge in Oregon. And while climate change is real it’s also a complicated global problem that was not caused and cannot be solved by just the United States government.“

      True enough, but misses the point. The Court’s authority is in the long held Public Trust Doctrine which sees sovereign governments as the trustees and protectors of shared resources, such as land and water. If the Court sides with the Children, agreeing that the government has failed in its constitutional duty to safeguard their interests, the Court can order the other branches of our government to refrain from actions that create the substantial impairment of those Public Trust resources, and to protect the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The Court can require the executive and the legislature to do their duty and come up with a plan to meet the 2050 de-carbonization deadline.

      No one thought the Children’s Trust suit would get this far. Questions still remain about folding climate into the clean air and water laws, and exactly what the Court can order the other branches to do, but the primary claim is very clear. There doesn’t have to be a ‘right to a stable climate’. The damages caused by the ocean level rise and acidification will do.

  15. Food is an interesting area for climate change because human diet preferences can make a huge difference in the carbon footprint of the person. Raising meat has a lot of externalities. Methane from waste is one issue. So is the power required to bring the required water to the animals, the deforestation required for grazing, the replacement of forest for agriculture, the waste that washes into creeks and rivers causing pollution downstream.

    It would certainly be hard to tell people in Minnesota that government wanted to tax the energy they used in their homes to heat those homes in January. Freezing to death is not a great option. However, taxing the externalities of inefficient food sources is another matter altogether. Vegetarians and vegans seem to do fine without meat, dairy, etc. If meat were taxed based on the external damage producing it does to the environment nobody would starve. In fact, replacing inefficient meant with efficient plant-based protein would probably reduce the incidence of hunger.

    I eat meat every day. But I don’t pay the full cost of the externalities of raising that meat, getting it to market and cooking it. If those externalities were priced into the product as taxes I’d eat less meat. Meanwhile, those taxes could be used to fund battery technology research at Virginia universities with the universities securing intellectual property rights to their inventions and selling those rights to generate money for lowered tuition.

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