Turning lights on with manure

Murphy-Brown and Alpental Energy form strategic partnership to convert manure to electricity.

A UNIQUE partnership to convert waste into electricity is more than a business transaction but a project that has a measurable, meaningful impact on the local environment.

Murphy-Brown LLC's Circle Four Farms and Alpental Energy Partners LLC are producing electricity via two methane digesters at the Circle Four hog facility just outside of Milford, Utah.

In 2012, Alpental approached Murphy-Brown, the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., about forming a strategic partnership to take hog manure from Circle Four and convert it into electrical energy, placing it on the power grid to provide electricity for residential and commercial customers in Utah.

"Murphy-Brown is excited to be the engine driving this latest form of renewable energy that will allow citizens to turn on the lights in their Utah homes while at the same time protecting the environment from greenhouse gases such as methane," said Jim Webb, director of environmental and public affairs for Circle Four Farms.

"We are committed to reducing our impact on the land, water and air resources that we use in our operations," he added.

As the principal funder of this project, Alpental installed two methane digesters at the Milford facility that convert manure from Circle Four's finishing operations to provide 3.2 megawatts of energy per year, or enough electricity to power about 3,000 homes and businesses.

Brady Olson, vice president of Alpental, told Feedstuffs that the company arranged a partnership with Murphy-Brown that allowed it to take ownership of the waste after it exited the barn. The waste is piped directly to Alpental's digesters, and the methane is extracted. Upon completion, the waste is returned to Circle Four's normal waste management system.

"Essentially, we borrow the waste and return it back to them," Olson explained. "Our arrangement is that we take ownership of the waste, and we pay them royalty on electrical and environmental attributes."

Under the business agreement, Alpental leases land at the Circle Four facility to house the necessary equipment and obtains access to certain parts of the hog facility to complete the project.

From the earliest discussion with Alpental, Murphy-Brown stressed that it is in the business of raising hogs safely and sustainably. The partnership was built on a foundation of cooperative understanding and mutual respect for each partner's business focus.

Alpental understood from the beginning that minimal disruption to the daily operation of Circle Four would lend to the success of the renewable energy project.

Since Alpental wanted the manure collected on a scheduled time table, the company employed individuals to carry out that process.

Although the path the waste travels has changed, the actual daily operation of the hog facility has been affected insignificantly.

"From our farm leaders' perspective, nothing has changed (in general operations)," Webb said. "It really just changes the rate at which the manure is digested."

The manure-to-energy project has had a significant impact on Circle Four's lagoons. That's because converting manure to energy means that solid waste is reduced; the solid waste is stored in lagoons at the farms, which greatly changes the dynamics of lagoons for the hog operations involved in this project.

In addition, both companies made the safety of the hogs their first priority.

It is rare for Alpental's employees to actually enter the hog barns, but if it's absolutely necessary, then the proper biosecurity procedures are followed, as established by Murphy-Brown's company program.


Environmental benefit

The environmental benefit of the waste-to-energy project is a long-term, winning collaboration for the partners involved and also for the local community and the state of Utah.

Alpental essentially reduces the hog operation's carbon footprint by destroying methane gas. Also, at the electricity production rate of 3.2 megawatts, Alpental is reducing 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, Olson noted.

Biogas (waste-to-energy) projects do differ from other renewable energy projects.

Although "wind and solar projects serve a purpose," Olson said, "Our project produces electricity 24/7 as a base-load resource. We do not have to hope for Mother Nature to deliver certain weather conditions for us to generate. It is reliable and consistent.

"Biogas projects have a measurable impact on air quality. We reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as offsetting dirtier forms of electricity going on the grid," he added.

For Alpental, an expansion of the biogas project with Circle Four is always a possibility, if both parties want to pursue it, but nothing is on the horizon at this time.

In general, Alpental said it carefully examines each potential renewable energy project individually for its economic and feasible attributes before investing.

Volume:86 Issue:01

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