Surry planners approve natural gas plant

Published 9:45 pm Monday, November 22, 2021

A proposed natural gas plant is heading to Surry’s Board of Supervisors with a favorable recommendation from the county’s Planning Commission.

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.

Surry’s Planning Commission voted unanimously with two members absent on Nov. 22 to approve the requested conditional use permit.

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When hog manure breaks down, it emits methane, a component of natural gas that’s also a greenhouse gas. Currently, this methane is emitted into the atmosphere, but according to company officials, it can be captured through the use of an anaerobic digester and covered lagoons — and piped to a regional facility for processing like the one proposed.

The proposed facility would serve as a hub for participating Smithfield farms in Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties. There, the gas would pass 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.

It would also bring over $243,000 per year in tax revenue to the county, starting in 2023, according to an economic and fiscal impact report prepared for Dominion, and employ two local workers.

But the extracted carbon dioxide would be re-released, and not all the extracted hydrogen sulfide will be turned into solid sulfur and hauled away. The small amount of hydrogen sulfide that escapes the membrane filter will be fed into a thermal oxidizer — essentially an incinerator — where intense heat will transform the gas into less-harmful sulfur dioxide before it’s also re-released into the atmosphere.

Company officials estimate the facility will emit just over 8 tons of sulfur dioxide and 12 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is below the threshold where a state Department of Environmental Quality air permit would be required.

The planners added as a condition of their approval a requirement that should Align wish to connect additional farms to the regional facility, potentially resulting in traffic above the estimated 22 annual truck visits, the company would have to return to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for additional approval should the proposed expansion result in more than a 50% increase in the site’s production volume. According to company officials, a 50% increase is the maximum the proposed site could accommodate without modifications.

Company officials say they plan to sell the environmental attributes associated with the facility, which they consider to have a “net negative” carbon footprint despite the re-released carbon and sulfur dioxide, since the methane it would keep out of the atmosphere is a far more potent greenhouse gas. This 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 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.

The matter is expected to go before the county’s Board of Supervisors for a public hearing and, potentially, a final vote, in January.

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.