ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now a story about an unusual kind of recycling. Two giant companies are promising to turn vast amounts of hog manure into clean, climate-saving energy. They are planning to capture natural gas from thousands of manure-filled ponds, mostly in North Carolina. But some of the people who live near those ponds just want them gone. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This new system for turning megawaste into megawatts is already up and running at one farm in eastern North Carolina, and Kraig Westerbeek loves to show it off. He's an executive from Smithfield Foods, the biggest pork producer in the country.
KRAIG WESTERBEEK: Right now you're standing in the middle of about 12,000 head.
CHARLES: Twelve thousand pigs in rows of hog houses, getting fatter, eating and excreting. Their manure flows into a big pond right in front of us. Westerbeek calls it a lagoon. In there, bacteria go to work on the waste, breaking it down.
WESTERBEEK: The bacterial action releases a biogas that's 60% to 65% methane.
CHARLES: And on most farms, that gas just floats off into the air where, by the way, it's a really bad greenhouse gas, at least 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. But this lagoon is covered with a blanket of black plastic.
WESTERBEEK: Eighty Mil (ph) HTP plastic, yep. So it's fairly thick. We can walk on it.
WESTERBEEK: You know, people do walk on it.
CHARLES: So we step out onto that plastic cover, which is bulging upward like the floor of a kid's bouncy castle because there's gas trapped underneath it.
Oh, you can bounce on this.
CHARLES: This isn't going to break?
WESTERBEEK: No, it's not going to break.
CHARLES: I had nightmares.
WESTERBEEK: I wouldn't bring you out here if it would break.
CHARLES: When the gas under this plastic is pumped out and purified, it's ready to burn in any gas-fired home furnace or power plant. This basic idea of turning manure into energy is not new; many dairy farms are already doing it. But Smithfield and its partner Dominion Energy are taking it big. They are planning to capture methane from hundreds of lagoons, connecting hog farms with miles of underground pipe, collecting the methane and feeding it into existing natural gas pipelines. Here's Ryan Childress, director of gas business development for Dominion Energy.
RYAN CHILDRESS: You know, we got audacious goals. We got a half a billion dollars behind it, and we intend to see that through and make a big difference for the environment for farmers and for customers that are looking for low-carbon energy.
CHARLES: Low-carbon energy - that is the key to this. You see, capturing the methane keeps it from going into the atmosphere and heating up the planet even more. And since that reduces greenhouse emissions, captured methane is considered a zero-carbon fuel - so-called renewable natural gas, guilt-free energy. People or companies who are trying to reduce their carbon emissions will pay extra for it, maybe twice as much as regular natural gas.
CHILDRESS: What has changed fundamentally is the market for renewable natural gas and the market for carbon have allowed us to develop a business model, economic model, that works for everybody involved.
CHARLES: Dominion Energy says this project will capture so much methane it'll reduce the country's greenhouse emissions as much as taking half a million cars off the road, which all sounds great, except that making money from manure ponds means the ponds are still there, and some people are not happy about that, people like Devon Hall.
DEVON HALL: No, I think they can do better.
CHARLES: Hall founded the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help in Warsaw, N.C., where hog farms are everywhere.
HALL: There's at least eight to 10 swine operations within a two-mile radius of where I live and where I work.
CHARLES: People who live near those farms have complained about the smell, especially when farmers spray the waste on fields. Twice in recent years, manure lagoons have flooded during hurricanes.
HALL: There's a lot of things, a lot of issues that we would love to be discussed.
CHARLES: Just covering lagoons to capture methane won't resolve those local concerns. Hall and other community activists want Smithfield to adopt new technologies for handling hog waste that would get rid of lagoons altogether. Those alternatives do exist. Smithfield, though, says they cost too much.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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