Turning Manure into Renewable Energy

The increasing popularity of renewable energy, as well as the desire of many industries to reduce their carbon footprint, has prompted companies like Smithfield to explore the many opportunities renewable energy presents. While renewable energy accounts for a small portion of the energy consumption in the United States, demand is growing, and we are committed to developing long-term, sustainable partnerships in this area.

Federal and state government incentives, such as those under the Energy Policy Acts of 2003 and 2005, are also helping spur momentum in the renewable energy industry sector. Foremost among the growing renewable energy opportunities is wind power generation. Solar and biomass waste are also expected to grow exponentially with further technological development. Several states have passed legislation encouraging electricity providers to generate power from renewable sources, including hog manure, while new technology is helping to make hog manure more suitable for conversion to energy.

Smithfield has been exploring manure-to-energy projects since the mid-1990s with the aim of supporting growth in the renewable energy field while creating valuable energy from our byproducts. Our efforts included experimental and full-scale biogas projects on several farms. Most of these projects have not reached full potential due to a host of challenges such as insufficient manure supplies, excess water reducing the energy potential, difficult-to-maintain pump systems, and corrosive biogas damaging sensitive combustion equipment.  

Despite the challenges, we continue our efforts. Technology has vastly improved since we started, and our experience with previous biogas projects has taught us many lessons that can contribute to the success of future projects. In most modern swine operations, pigs are raised in barns with slatted floors. Manure falls through the slats to a storage area below. With a “deep-pit” or “pull-plug” manure management system, the manure is held for a few weeks between cleanings. “Flush” systems remove the manure several times daily, using pumped water. One system proposed for replacing the flush system in certain swine barns is a mechanical scraper system. In this system, a metal or flexible blade below the slatted floor moves manure to the end of the barn where it falls directly into storage or to a sump from which it is transported to a storage unit or anaerobic treatment lagoon. This process allows for more frequent manure removal. The barn scraper technology can produce hog manure highly suitable for conversion to energy due to its reduced water content, potentially enhancing the potential of our farms for energy developers.

Turning Manure into Energy Smithfield Foods

Murphy-Brown is working on several projects with great potential, including the following:

The Circle Four operations near Milford, Utah, have a contract with an energy development firm to build two power production facilities on the site of our hog finishing farms. The project will generate 3.2 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power nearly 100 homes and offset an estimated 107,561 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year. This will also reduce manure sent to on-site lagoon systems, while improving the quality of the water returned to the farm. This should improve air quality within the hog barns. The project was built in the Blue Mountain complex and began generating electricity in December 2012.

A paradox of modern hog farms is that feeding pigs becomes more efficient each year, reducing the manure available for energy production. During project start-up the pigs in the Blue Mountain complex produced less manure than expected, leading to lower energy production than planned. To realize the full generation potential of the power production facilities, the developer is connecting additional finishing farms to the system. Ultimately, the project will be able to sell about 25,000 megawatt hours of electricity each year. Murphy-Brown will receive royalties for providing the feedstock, and realize operational benefits from the upgraded infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Vestal farm in Kenansville, North Carolina, upgraded its existing biogas production processes with the help of an energy development firm. By adding an electricity generator to the system, the farm now produces 100 kilowatts of electricity from hog waste.

In Missouri, Murphy-Brown has signed an agreement to allow a developer to install impermeable synthetic covers on existing lagoons, and barn scraper technology will be utilized to deliver manure to the covered lagoons. Alternative fuel equipment will harvest and commercialize biogas produced inside the lagoons. The biogas will then be utilized as a renewable, green energy resource.

Over the past three years, Murphy-Brown has sought opportunities to supply fuel to a range of larger projects that could generate five to 10 megawatts of electricity throughout North Carolina. Many of these projects are still awaiting financing.

We plan to be involved with these types of projects in the United States and internationally over the long term, and we are investing in expert staff to identify and optimize new energy sources. We are confident in our ability to add value through our manure management systems. We continue to explore business relationships where we can work with companies that have the capital and technical expertise to make these projects a success.

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