Roeslein and Smithfield Looking to the Future of Turning Manure into Energy
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By Echo Menges
NEMOnews Media Group
North Missouri – Monday, August 16, 2020 – Two years after announcing their joint venture to harvest natural gas from hog manure in Milan, MO, the upper echelon representatives of Smithfield Foods, Inc. and Roeslein Alternative Energy (RAE) migrated back to Northern Missouri for another announcement: The North Missouri arm of the project is complete. Better yet – it’s an overwhelming success, which will have national and global ramifications.
It is not completely known exactly how engineering powerhouse Rudi Roeslein, founder and CEO of RAE, caught the attention of Smithfield decision makers, however, what the two companies have done together over the last ten years will be a benchmark for the future.
They have figured out a way to harvest biogas emitted from hog manure lagoons, and in turn pump renewable natural gas (RNG) into the national pipeline – for a profit. Also, Smithfield’s hog operations harvesting methane gas from manure have become a carbon negative example of what can be done in the livestock industry.
“If we don’t do something for our grandkids, they’re not going to have the landscape that we did,” said Roeslein Alternative Energy and Roeslein and Associates founder and CEO Rudi Roeslein. “Smithfield was committed and that encouraged me to keep going, and to keep investing money.”
Roeslein’s passion for protecting the planet from global warming for future generations has paid off in a big way, which he and his team have been working on diligently. Smithfield’s investment in the venture – providing time, testing ground and money – puts one of the world’s biggest pork producers ahead of the curve, ushers them into the energy business and increases the prospect of the company reaching its goal of reducing its carbon footprint in the U.S. by 30 percent by 2030 – thanks to their partnership with Roeslein.
Vice President of Smithfield Foods and Smithfield Renewables Kraig Westerbeek made the journey from Warsaw, NC, to the Smithfield campus near Princeton, MO, for the announcement last week on August 11. He joined Roeslein, employees from both companies and a collection of state legislators for a daylong gathering and tour of Smithfield’s Somerset facility.
“Today, we’re celebrating the culmination of work that started in 2014. We started covering lagoons and capturing methane gas. Since then, converting that biogas into pure methane gas, renewable natural gas, to put into the pipeline for use in our energy grid. Over the last seven years, we’ve built out eight very large projects here on eight of our largest finishing farms here in Northern Missouri, and today we’re celebrating the fact that we finished the last one. We’ve put in enough renewable natural gas production capacity to create 800,000 decatherms of renewable natural gas to put into the grid, which makes it the largest manure-to-energy project in Missouri – if not the country,” said Kraig Westerbeek, Vice President of Smithfield Foods and Smithfield Renewables.
Going forward, Smithfield is looking at bringing some of their Missouri sow farms online to produce RNG, and at ways to use the same process to capture biogas by digesting cover crops and prairie grass.
“I think what we’ve learned here in Northern Missouri has really jump-started Smithfield’s efforts in the manure-to-energy area. We’ve been involved in, and have invested in manure-to-energy projects for two decades. What’s changed? The markets have changed. The technology has changed,” said Westerbeek. “Our investment here in Northern Missouri with Roeslein, and the success we’ve seen here has really emboldened us. We’ve installed projects in Utah to date, as well as here in Northern Missouri. We’re under construction with projects in North Carolina, in Virginia, in Arizona, in California. We have additional opportunities in Southern Missouri on some contract farms there. This project in Northern Missouri has given us the confidence to use this across all of our operations across the United States.”
In 2017, Smithfield set a goal of having 90 percent of their U.S. finishing operations involved in manure-to-energy projects within ten years, according to Westerbeek.
“I believe we have a blueprint we can take throughout the country,” said Roeslein. “For me, it’s just a day of gratitude. I’m very appreciative that Smithfield has given us the opportunity to show that we can do this.”
After such a long period of research and development, RAE’s designs have put both companies on a track to increase their profit margins while taking a bite out of Smithfield’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The economics are better than we anticipated. You’re dealing with markets that do fluctuate. Profitability is a function of markets. At this point in time, yes, the investment has been a good investment, and we are going to continue to make investments in this area,” said Westerbeek.
The companies are using what they’ve learned on their Missouri venture to expand the program. Smithfield is moving forward to implement manure-to-energy projects at their company owned hog farms and independent contractors.
“We have a lot of contract growers here in Northern Missouri and we’d love to figure out ways for them to participate, and we are looking at how to do that. In states like North Carolina, 90 percent of our production will be on independent family farms. We’re building a project as we speak that’s 19 farms, similar to what we’re doing here, 19 farms to one gas upgrading system and injection point. Of those 19 farms, 16 are contract farmers that contract with us or possibly someone else. We’re offering them a contract for the biogas that they produce. If they build a digester, we’ll provide them a long-term offtake for the biogas they produce. That contract is good enough for them to go get bank financing, have a good return on investment, and not only get paid for the pigs they produce – but also for the gas they produce from their manure,” said Westerbeek. “One of the main goals we have here is to increase the amount of money that farmers can get and have them share in the profit of creating energy from manure.”
Local State Representative Greg Sharpe (District 4) was among the group of Missouri legislators in attendance at the announcement. Sharpe watched the presentations and took the chartered bus tour of Smithfield’s Somerset facility to see the biogas harvesting process. Sharpe paid close attention to the process and spent time visiting with Roeslein and Westerbeek noting the lack of odor at the facility grounds.
“There were several legislators here from throughout the state just to get a grasp on how important this was to the state,” said Missouri State Representative Greg Sharpe. “These lagoons are covered and they’re limiting the odor. That’s what all these CAFO controversies are about. It’s about odor. Certainly, I think the industry has done a very good job of limiting that but you’re still going to have a certain amount. There were a lot of hog operations we drove by today, lots of hogs, and we didn’t smell anything. In August, you would have expected that. It was certainly an impressive display.”
For the Roeslein companies, the technology and designs they developed in Missouri are not exclusive to Smithfield. They will be offering it to others.
“We are already building projects in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Texas and Wisconsin. Lots coming up in North Carolina and Virginia,” said RAE Director of Communications Brandon Butler.
“We’re really good at producing pork, producing food. We’re really good at raising animals and turning that into products that consumers use. We understand manure. We understand manure management. We’re probably the best in the industry at managing that aspect of our business. When you look at the partnerships we’ve formed with companies like Roeslein and Associates and Roeslein Alternative Energy, who are experts in engineering and construction, and now biogas conversion into renewable natural gas, I think it shows the power of those types of partnerships where you take folks with different expertise, you form a partnership that allows you to do projects like these. I think that’s important and a special part of the story here,” said Westerbeek.
According to information provided by Smithfield, the company processes about 33 million hogs annually in the U.S. Of those, roughly 19 million hogs are raised on Smithfield owned farms. Roughly, 14 million hogs are raised on independently concentrated farms – many of which can be found locally and statewide.