Farm finds power in hogs

By: By Scott Bigelow -

BLADENBORO — Dwarfed by the massive 1.2-million-gallon biodigester, tanker trucks deliver 24 hours a day the liquid energy that helps turn hog waste into electricity at the Storms Farms’ power plant near Bladenboro.

On the farm, Billy Storms tends 23 hog houses on 500 acres of land that he cleared himself, one stump at a time. Storms, who built his first hog house in 1992, decided to solve the environmental issues posed by hog waste.

Storms Hog Power, a privately-owned electric generating plant, is a one-of-a-kind undertaking, Storms said. It is 3.5 years old and cost almost $10 million. A giant engine produces enough power from methane to power 350 homes. With an excess of methane being generated, a second, smaller engine will come online soon.

“We can just about light up the whole town of Bladenboro,” Storms said with a chuckle.

But he adds: “Would I do this again?”

That is a tough question for Storms Farms, just as hog lagoons continue to be a concern for the hog industry.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Storms said. “This is a first.”

About 10 years ago, he began researching alternatives to pumping waste into the farms’ six open-air lagoons and then spraying it on fields. At the time, there were biodigesters producing electricity in the dairy industry, but none for hogs.

Since turning on the engine 3.5 years ago, the number of lagoons brimming with hog waste has declined from six to one. Methane is being turned from potent greenhouse gas to electricity.

The lagoon waste disposal method and the millions of hogs being raised in Eastern North Carolina has raised red flags from environmental groups like American Rivers. This month, the group labeled the Cape Fear River one of the nation’s most endangered because of the threat posed by lagoons. North Carolina continues its moratorium on new lagoons .

Storms Hog Power is an answer to many of the environment issues presented by hog farms. The project makes a case for hog waste being the most valuable part of the hog.

“Our goal was to keep hog waste out of the lagoons,” said Matthew Long, Billy Storms’ son-in-law. “From six lagoons, we are down to one. The water that goes into that lagoon is as clear as ditch water.”

Hog power begins in the hog houses with specially designed scrapers that push waste into holding tanks seven times a day. From there, it is pumped into tanker trucks for the short ride to the biodigester.

Up to 2,000 gallons an hour go into the digester, where enzymes and pipes carrying 100-degree water turn waste into methane. Getting the enzymes and the ingredients right was a challenge during the start-up. Chicken waste from the Storms’ 16 chicken houses did not work out.

The methane is scrubbed and piped from the digester to the engine room. The larger engine produces 600 kilowatts per hour and the smaller one will soon produce another 200 kilowatts.

The control room of the high-tech operation has 16 closed circuit monitors and a computer the size of a refrigerator. A company in Wisconsin monitors the engines 24 hours a day.

The power is sold to the North Carolina Electric Membership Cooperative. Tax credits and the sale of carbon credits help finance the operation.

Hog power has produced additional benefits. Dead hogs and chickens, which are expensive to dispose of, go into the digester.

Because of the regular scraping of hog waste, methane levels in the hog houses are much lower, leaving the animals and humans healthier. Methane gas builds up more in winter months when vents are closed to keep heat in.

The waste-to-power process significantly reduces odor from the houses, lagoons and from spraying waste on farm fields. Odor from hog houses has been an issue from the start in North Carolina, resulting in numerous lawsuits and recent legislation to curtail awards from the suits.

Storms Farms continues to pump water from the six lagoons and spray it on the land in order to keep their permits active. The spray does not contain the high levels of nitrates that can pollute ground and surface water.

Storms Hog Power employs six people. The electricity purchased by the Electric Membership helps satisfy its quota for renewable power.

In a separate building, wastewater from the biodigester runs into a separator. The solid waste that results is odorless and rich in nutrients that may one day be sold commercially.

“We’ve had a lot of publicity, and there is interest in building more of these power plants,” Long said.

By Scott Bigelow

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-416-5649.

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-416-5649.