Biogas, and a whole lot more

By News-Press Now

Five years of progress on an ambitious vision give Northern Missouri a new point of pride in the field of renewable alternative energy sources.

A new biogas production facility is operating at Ruckman Farm near Albany, Missouri, signaling a milestone in the application of technology to the problem of what to do with the large amounts of manure waste produced by commercial hog production.

As the News-Press reported, the $120 million biogas project — which relies on anaerobic digestion of animal waste to produce methane gas — is the result of a partnership between Roeslein Alternative Energy of St. Louis and Smithfield Hog Production, the state’s largest owner of hog farms.

This is notable, first of all, for how it addresses important environmental issues.

“Think about 2 million pigs,” Rudi Roeslein, CEO and founder of his namesake company, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That’s a waste treatment problem equivalent to a city the size of St. Louis.”

The impacts are well known to regional counties that long have contended with odor complaints and water-quality concerns and to agricultural industries increasingly under scrutiny for emissions of gases harmful to the atmosphere.

The project involves installation of impermeable covers on 88 lagoons, each about four acres in size, that are part of nine pig-finishing farms. Through anaerobic digestion, bacteria break down the manure and emit methane. The gas is then is captured, cleaned of impurities and funneled into a pipeline system that serves markets around the country.

It’s not boastful for the partners to note an array of positives that are good for the environment.

The high-density polyethylene covers on the lagoons will reduce release of odors related to manure, which previously was retained in open lagoons. The covers also will keep rainfall from entering the lagoons, allowing it to return to the groundwater supply without requiring costly treatment first. And capturing the gas for reuse is equivalent to taking 178,000 vehicles off the road.

When fully operational, the conversion of methane gas will produce an estimated 2.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas each year. Significantly, this output is expected to nearly double as Roeslein pursues a later phase of the project.

The plan is to complement manure-based methane production with biomass from prairie grasses planted and harvested on marginal land not suitable for crops. This will boost natural gas production by another 2 billion cubic feet annually.

As a side benefit, officials say water quality and wildlife habitat in the area will be further bolstered as the project incorporates the restoration of native prairie grasses.

These are encouraging initiatives — exciting developments, really — for a region that is so invested in agricultural production and in sustaining the natural environment that makes that possible.