Factory-farmed pigs know a lot about animal abuse. So forgive my lack of excitement over the news that Google is buying into Duke University’s new scheme for turning “hog waste” into energy. The company calls it renewable energy. I call it greenwashing.
I am a longtime Google fan and admire the company’s innovative spirit and their commitment to being environmentally responsible. I just hope they will give more thought to where “hog waste” comes from and whether it really fits into their green efforts.
On the Green Side
Pigs in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) do produce a lot of waste. It is an environmental disaster. So it is not surprising media reports on Google’s move have been glowing.
Duke University and Duke Energy have developed a carbon neutral system that is open-sourced. That means anyone can install the technology on their own pig farm, with a promise of lower energy costs and fewer carbon emissions.
The $1.2 million prototype can be found in Yadkinville, North Carolina, where Loyd Ray Farms has an 8,600-head swine finishing facility. Here’s how the Duke Sustainability site describes it:
“The project involves the capture of methane generated by the hog waste which is captured and collected under a plastic cover over the anaerobic digester. The gas collected under the digester cover is used to power a 65-kW microturbine, the electricity from which is used to support the operation of the innovative waste management system. From the digester, the liquid waste flows to an aeration basin which treats the water for ammonia and remaining pollutants so that it can be re-used for irrigation and barn-flushing. Any electricity not needed to power the innovative system is kept on the farm to support normal farm operations.
“The project creates carbon offsets through the destruction of the methane, which will be shared by Duke University and Google. It also produces renewable energy credits (RECs) which Duke Energy counts towards its NC Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) requirements for the generation of electricity from swine waste. ”
So far, so good. The anaerobic digester turns an ongoing environmental problem into reusable water and green energy. The technology will be available to anyone. No wonder Google is receiving kudos for adopting it.
However, there is a dark side.
The Underbelly of Green Energy
The problem with the scheme is that it depends on an energy-intensive system that abuses living creatures. The reason hog farms have so much waste to turn into “green” energy is that they raise pigs in abominable conditions. These are intelligent creatures, smarter than the average dog. They are sociable. They have feelings.
The abuse starts at birth. Since their mothers are trapped in gestation crates, piglets are have to lie on cold, feces-spattered concrete while they suckle. Less than a month later they are weaned, though normal piglets would stay with their mothers for several months. Their teeth are clipped, their tails chopped off. Boar piglets are castrated. Nothing dulls the pain of these procedures. When sow piglets are old enough to reproduce, they are artificially inseminated and then imprisoned in cages too small to allow them to turn around or lie down comfortably.
The details of their abuse are grotesque, and you can learn more about them from sites like PETA and End Factory Farming. But this is a post about carbon offsets so it is important to consider the energy costs that go into factory farming pigs.
Because they are unable to graze or root, CAFO pigs have to be fed grain. Grain farming is a major energy hog, needing fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and machinery fuel. It is delivered to huge barns that require massive amounts of water to provide even a modest level of sanitation for the overcrowded pigs. Every aspect of pig farming — farrowing, weaning, finishing, feeding, waste handling, heating, ventilation — consumes energy.
The only part of this equation Google and Duke are addressing is the waste handling. The digester system may reduce dead zones caused by runoff from CAFOs. It may reduce costs to farmers and provide energy for their operations. What it will not do is provide green energy. A system that depends on animal abuse may have environmental benefits, but the cost is too high.
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