Company to turn farm waste into renewable natural gas

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STANTONSBURG — Byproducts from Wilson swine and crop farms will soon be transformed into renewable natural gas thanks to a $33 million investment from a Raleigh company.

A variety of community and business leaders gathered Thursday for a ground breaking ceremony on the 6400 block of Woodbridge Road where Green Energy Sustainable Solutions International, or GESS, plans to use 15 acres to build a biogas facility. Farmer R.C. Hunt said he’s been raising pigs for half a century and has had an increased interest lately in improving the industry, so partnering with GESS was a natural evolution of that mission.

“At the end of the day, there are truckloads of feed that comes into this farm and there are truckloads of manure that go out,” he said. “Our system of anaerobic lagoons is a very natural breakdown of waste, but what we’re about here today is trying to take all those nutrients and recover them.”

GESS CEO Shaun Lee said the use of clean renewable energy bonds helped make the investment possible in Wilson as well as similar projects in Nash, Union, Robeson, Columbus, Bladen and Brunswick counties.

“The ideas and concepts are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, so we really have is a clean way to convert waste materials — whether it is crop residue or animal waste — and turn it into renewable natural gas,” Lee said. “And renewable natural gas in the United States is the future.”

Financing approval for the Nash County project was secured earlier this week, so Lee said he’s looking forward to having a similar ceremony to celebrate the site on South Old Franklin Road near Spring Hope where the company will make a similar investment. The plants in Wilson and Nash counties will employ between eight and 15 people between engineers, managers and truck drivers.

“I’m thrilled,” said Wilson Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer Lantz. “I love being able to land an ag-technology project for Wilson.”

Lee said the company plans to work with a handful of farms throughout the county for an estimated 270,000 tons of animal waste and crop residue, which will be processed and turned into 550,000 MMbtu (million British thermal units) of renewable natural gas annually. He added that the tanks are covered and limit odor from the waste.

“I think it is exciting, particularly in an industry that can use byproducts we’re already producing,” said Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County. “If they can take those byproducts and turn it into natural gas, it is a win-win for everybody.”

Lee said he’s optimistic construction will start on the Wilson County facility in March or April with the first tanks in use by the end of the summer and up to full capacity around the start of 2020. Local leaders praised the investment and effort to bring advanced technology to the area’s agricultural industry.

“For every dollar invested with solar energy, generally there will be a return of $2 or maybe $3 in the local community. For these projects, every dollar invested has a return of $7 into the local community,” Lee said. “That is a pretty general number in terms of biogas plants because it maintains the amount of jobs and local economic benefit over a long period of time.”