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Smithfield Foods, Kroger and other big food vendors turn waste into energy

Cleveland Browns' Stadium

Rendering of FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns, which on Sunday showed off a digester system that will divert an estimated 35 tons of food waste from landfills yearly. Photograph: AP


Powered by article titled “Smithfield Foods, Kroger and other big food vendors turn waste into energy” was written by Zach Rodgers, for on Monday 2nd December 2013 18.50 UTC

Smithfield Foods, the world’s No 1 pork producer, doesn’t give up easily. It has tried all sorts of renewable energy projects – including anaerobic-digestion projects, which use bacteria in an oxygen-free environment to transform agricultural and food waste into gas energy that can be used on-site or sold into the power grid – and has suffered plenty of setbacks. One anaerobic-digestion project in Utah, for example, failed several years ago.

Undeterred, the company has lately set in motion two new anaerobic digester projects – one in northern Missouri and one in Utah – to collect biogas from swine feces. “We have failed at more renewable energy projects than most people have tried,” says Smithfield’s chief sustainability officer, Dennis Treacy. “But we see the future with these types of projects.”

Anaerobic digestion has grown increasingly attractive to big food producers such as Smithfield Foods and Kroger, as well as big food vendors such as stadiums. For one thing, anaerobic-digestion systems reduce waste – also lowering related waste-disposal costs – while producing energy at a potentially lower net cost than, say, solar or wind power.

They also reduce the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, released into the atmosphere from the waste. That’s not a trivial issue: the US is releasing more methane into the atmosphere than previously thought, according to a study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That methane – which from 2007-2008 may have been 1.5 times greater than previously estimated by the EPA – comes from a variety of sources, including farm operations, landfills and oil production.

Other benefits include odor reduction – a highlight for neighbors and employees who complain about farm smells – the creation of green jobs and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who has toured digester facilities at several massive pork and dairy farms, is a fan of the systems for large agricultural operations.

“There is a new economy that can be created through the use of bio-based processing and manufacturing,” Vilsack told me. “It is part of an effort to diversify income and job opportunities in rural America … and show Americans there’s a way to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels, especially imported fossil fuels.”

But, as you’ll see below, plenty of challenges remain.

Pig power by Smithfield

For the Northern Missouri project, Smithfield tapped local partner Roeslein Alternative Energy to build a $100m biogas system. The project will cap more than 100 lagoons of liquefied hog waste with impermeable covers to trap the biogas as the waste decomposes. Four have been completed since the project began in 2011 – and Smithfield aspires to finish the remaining 95-plus by 2016.

Tall order? Yes. But the potential benefits are large, including reductions in odor and rainfall entering its treatment system, which will save Smithfield money.

The next step will be for Roeslein to do something with all that biogas, which is just being flared off today. Energy conversion will happen as more lagoons are covered, but Smithfield isn’t very focused on that: Under the terms of its agreement with Roeslein it will not realize revenue from energy sales. Rather its key indicators come in the form of “cost avoidance” and a burnished public image.

The Smithfield project in Utah is further along. Joint venture partner Alpental Energy Partners has installed two digesters to which manure is piped from 26 nearby Smithfield-owned farms. The digesters use bacteria to convert manure from approximately 350,000 hogs into electricity, which is fed back into the power grid. In contrast to the Missouri project, Alpental pays royalties back to Smithfield based on the sale of its energy, which at peak production is sufficient to power about 3,000 homes and businesses. According to Alpental’s power purchase agreement with a local utility, all power generated at the site stays in Utah.

However compelling this project may be, Alpental is not clamoring to build more systems like the one in Utah. It’s worth asking why.

“There’s a simple reason we’re not lining up 30 new Smithfield facilities,” says Brady Olson, VP at Alpental Energy. “We look at each of these projects on a cash flow basis. From an investment standpoint, if you’re trying to build one of these to make money, it’s more challenging than it was three years ago.”


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