Home to 8.5 million hogs, North Carolina is ranked second in the country for largest pig population — evident to Sara Peach from an aerial view.
“It’s clear from the air that it is very highly concentrated; you just look out the window of the airplane and there’s lagoons in every direction," said Peach, who is the associate director of Reese News Lab in the School of Media and Journalism.
These huge pink lagoons are where hog waste traditionally goes to sit and later be sprayed on fields, which is bad for people's health and the environment, said Carolyn Fryberger, program coordinator for N.C. Growth.
An alternative destination for hog waste are capture facilities where it will be converted into energy through methane capture. Duke Energy plans to implement this procedure in partnership with Carbon Cycle Energy — which will build and own a capture facility in densely hog populated eastern North Carolina.
Randy Wheeless, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said that North Carolina is one of two states whose renewable energy portfolio includes a carve out for energy converted from swine waste.
He said that these standards were a driving factor in the project.
“Right now, if you’re talking how’s the easiest way to do energy, it would not be swine waste to energy," Wheeless said.
While the cost is expensive for the company relative to other forms of energy generation, customers will not see a rise in their bills thanks to a cost cap in the REP, he said.
Wheeless said that the energy from pig waste conversion would be carbon neutral.
“The emissions that we are sending out are really less than the emissions that we would have from the waste if it was just left out,” he said.
Like other renewable technologies, he said that the more projects there are, the lower they will cost.
“There’s still a lot of hurdles, but this project is positive news that heads us in the right direction,” he said.
Steven Wing, a professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, gave a 2013 TED Talk about how industrial hog farms produce air pollutants and contaminate ground and surface water, which harm the health and wellbeing of neighboring communities.
Those communities, he discovered in a 2014 study he conducted with Jill Johnston — also of the Gillings School of Public Health — are disproportionately black, Hispanic and American Indian, a pattern the study says is acknowledged as environmental racism.
“We need to phase out this system rather than prop it up with methane capture,” Wing said.
Fryberger said that the demand in the industrial meat industry is only growing worldwide, so using advanced technology like methane capture over traditional methods could improve the health of the neighboring communities that are devastated by the farms.
“It’s not going to be the total solution, but it can make immediate improvements in air and water quality,” she said.
She said that a third-party facility, like the one being built by Carbon Cycle Energy, can validate a centralized model of methane capture that can convert the waste from multiple farms at once.
Peach said that many eastern North Carolinians she spoke with were outraged, while others noted the role that the giant hog industry plays in the region’s economy.
“I think (the hog waste situation) raises a lot of troubling questions about how we’re raising our food and who’s paying for it,” she said.
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