Align RNG hosts community meeting on gas project

Published 11:32 am Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Surry County residents had the opportunity to meet with the developers of a proposed natural gas project on Oct. 27 and raise questions and concerns about the project.

Align RNG, a joint venture of Dominion Energy and Smithfield Foods, wants to build a regional facility off Route 31 that would turn methane from hog manure into pipeline-quality natural gas.

When hog manure breaks down, it emits methane, a component of natural gas that is also a greenhouse gas. Currently, this methane is emitted into the atmosphere but, according to company officials, can be captured through the use of an anaerobic digester and covered lagoons.

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The proposed facility would serve as a hub for participating Smithfield farms in Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties. There, it would be processed through membranes to remove the hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, leaving a 99% pure product that can be fed into existing natural gas pipelines. According to company officials, the reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere from farming operations should be roughly equivalent to taking 22,000 vehicles off the road.

Roughly 10 people, not counting company representatives, attended the meeting, which was held at 5 p.m. in Surry County’s community center on Enos Farm Drive. There, some took issue with the company promoting the project as “carbon negative” since the extracted carbon dioxide is re-released into the atmosphere, while others questioned whether any Surry residents would benefit from the resulting gas.

“The gas itself will be sold locally” to a company like Columbia Gas, said Ryan Childress, Align’s director of business development. “That’s who the pipeline is here.”

The project, he added, is still considered to have a “net negative” carbon footprint, despite the released carbon dioxide, because of the amount of methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas — that the project would prevent from entering the atmosphere.

In addition to selling the resulting gas, the company also plans to sell the environmental attributes associated with the facility.

The matter drew criticism from county residents at the Planning Commission’s September public hearing. Jeremy Clarke, Align’s manager of new business development, however, told the commissioners he’d also received a number of letters from landowners in support of the project.

“You can sell them to voluntary buyers like a corporation that may want to reduce its carbon footprint,” Childress said.

The sale of these environmental attributes would “operate in the market in the same way” as when electricity-generating facilities sell renewable energy certificates to companies seeking to decrease their overall carbon footprints, according to Align spokeswoman Lucy Rhodes.

The extracted hydrogen sulfide will be turned into solid sulfur and hauled away in trucks five times a year. Each truck will carry roughly 4 tons of sulfur, Childress said. The sulfur will either be landfilled or repurposed for agricultural uses.

Company officials previously assured Surry residents when the matter went before the county’s Planning Commission on Sept. 29 that the sulfur extraction will result in “no detectable odors.” Noise from the facility could reach up to 50 decibels at the nearest residence, which Childress described as equivalent to a “quiet office.”

An additional five trucks will visit the site to perform maintenance, and another 12 to make deliveries, for a total of 22 visits annually, Childress said.

The Planning Commission tabled its decision on the matter in September for 60 days and expects to vote on the requested conditional use permit on Nov. 22.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include remarks by Align spokeswoman Lucy Rhodes clarifying that Align plans to sell environmental attributes associated with the facility, not renewable energy certificates, though the two concepts are similar.