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BLADENBORO – From inside a red metal building on a hog farm, a roaring engine is generating enough electricity to supply about 300 homes.
The fuel for the generator comes from the gassy byproduct of decomposing pig manure – waste that until now had been stored in six open-air lagoons spread over 21acres just outside this Bladen County town of 1,750 residents.
Last October, North Carolina’s largest swine waste-to-energy facility began commercially operating, thanks to the steady supply of manure from 28,000 hogs on William Storms’ farm.
On Friday, the 69-year-old Storms and his family members joined about 150 guests, including state officials and contractors who touted the environmental and financial benefits of the $5 million project. Storms used a pocketknife to cut a blue ribbon.
To help finance the innovative endeavor, Storms received $1 million in state tax credits and a $1.5 million U.S. Treasury grant.
Storms, who also raises chickens and grows crops on his 1,000-acre farm, said several people jokingly have asked him why he took on the project so close to retirement. He said farming has been in his family for generations and he wants the tradition to continue.
“I do know that things have to continue,” Storms told guests inside an air-conditioned but fly-infested tent next to the new facility. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. I guess I’m a guinea pig.”
Not quite. According to the N.C. Pork Council, five similar, but smaller, facilities that extract methane gas from hog waste to generate electricity have opened over the past two years – two in Harnett County, one in Yadkinville and two in Duplin County.
North Carolina, particularly east of Interstate 95, has been a large hog producer for decades. But some lawmakers, residents and environmentalists have complained that the waste from large-scale swine operations can contaminate groundwater and streams and create sickening odors. Plus, the open-air waste pits allow methane – a potent greenhouse gas – to escape into the atmosphere.
On Storms’ farm Friday, the odor of manure was strong.
“It smells like money to me,” said Storms, who has tanned arms, a ruddy face and wore a white-rimmed hat.
The manure is collected mechanically from the hog barns, then hauled by truck a few hundreds away to a conveyer belt at the new facility. The manure then is pumped into a concrete-lined enclosure, called a “digester,” which holds 1.2million gallons of wastewater.
Inside the enclosure, bacteria decompose the manure, producing biogas – mainly methane – that’s collected to combust the electric generator.
A cow’s stomach does the same thing: Bacteria help digest consumed grains and produce gas.
The electricity – enough to power 290 typical households – is sold to North Carolina Electric Membership Corp.’s grid network.
The digester is essentially a well, 16 feet deep and about half the length of a football field, encased with an earthen berm.
The digester produces wastewater that is free of pathogens and odors and removes 90percent of the phosphorus and 75 percent of ammonia nitrogen, which is important, because too much of it sprayed over fields as fertilizer can pollute streams. Some excess gas is flared at the site.
“We can do all of this with the digester, and with a profit,” said Doug Van Ornum of DVO Inc., which custom made the digester.
Storms had to invest some of his own money, too. He got a $3.8 million loan from the Cape Fear Farm Credit Association, which is based in Fayetteville. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program guaranteed the loan.
Storms told the audience Friday there were several reasons for moving forward with the project.
“I want to be a good neighbor,” he said, then added: “I think it has a lot of potential in the hog business.”