Utah’s renewable energy Utopia is fueled by wind, solar and pig power.

In Milford, Utah, renewable energy comes in surprising forms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wind turbines, solar panels, and hog farms north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

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Milford • If you look for Milford on a map of Utah, you’ll find it right in the middle of nowhere.

Unless you live there, work there, or got lost on the way to Ely, Nevada, it’s unlikely you’ve stopped in this little railroad town whose main street seems frozen in 1899. Travel just a few miles north, and you may begin to wonder if you’ve skipped a century or two into the future.

Here, in the dry, dusty Escalante Desert the earth bakes under an average of 254 sunny days per year, and the wind howls as it races over the broad flats that lie between the San Francisco Mountains to the west and the Mineral Mountains on the east where the foothills belch steam.

Perfectly suited to generating multiple types of renewable energy - wind, solar, and geothermal - the landscape is so desolate and alien, it could be Mars. If not for the pigs, that is.

“Definitely a lot more pigs living here than people,” said Andrew Hegewald of Dominion Energy. Some 228,000 pigs at any given time to be precise, or about 171 pigs to every human in Milford.

“And those are just the ones associated with the poop-to-pipeline project,” Hegewald said.

Yes, the oinking ungulates are the fourth source of renewable energy here. Specifically, the incredible quantities of waste you get from raising a quarter million pigs across 26 farms in the same valley.

In Milford, Dominion Energy and Smithfield Foods - two giants of different industries - have come together to prove that hog waste shouldn’t be wasted.

Livestock waste is a significant source of global greenhouse gas emissions. Capturing waste gasses and turning them into what is called “renewable natural gas” for home heating is a promising practice for offsetting these emissions, but also a challenging one.

A messy tapestry

The Milford area may not be the state’s largest producer of renewable energy, but the diversity of energy sources it offers is unique and Dominion Energy is involved with several of them.

Dominion, a Virginia-based company, is deeply invested in renewable energy in Utah because, along with several other energy companies, it has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Part of reaching that commitment involves off-setting carbon emissions with investments in renewable energy sources.

“It’s the Shangri-La of renewable energy,” said Aaron Ruby, who manages media relations for Dominion Energy.

Shangri-La didn’t sprout up overnight, however. Geothermal development in the area goes back nearly 40 years, wind 10 years, and solar five years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wind turbines and hog farms north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

What’s more, trying to track renewable energy in the area (or anywhere in the state for that matter) is difficult at best. Energy development, management, transmission and ownership for any given renewable energy site are rarely handled by a single company. The roles change hands frequently enough that companies lose track of what they own or what they manage in a given area.

Still, with enough prodding it is possible to get a rough sense of the impact of renewable energy development around Milford. Looking just at the producers in the immediate area:

  • Milford Wind with its 97 wind turbines produces 610,000 megawatt hours (mwh) of electricity yearly;

  • Blundell Geothermal produces 75,000 mwh of electricity yearly;

  • Escalante Solar produces 619,000 mwh of electricity yearly;

Together that’s a grand total of 1.3 million megawatt hours per year, the greenhouse gas equivalent of:

  • Removing 1 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air; or

  • Taking 200,000 cars off the road; or

  • All the carbon sequestered by all the trees in Salt Lake County (including its sizable share of Wasatch National Forest) in a year.

And that’s before we get to the pigs.

Pig Power

If you go to Milford looking for pigs, you may be disappointed.

“We try not to disturb the pigs,” said Matt Robinson the regional safety manager for Smithfield Foods, who also serves as mayor of Beaver, Utah.

The pigs are raised in clusters of sheds with approximately 8,800 pigs per cluster. Inside, they enjoy relative comfort for a commercial livestock operation, with droves of 20 to 50 hogs per pen. You need to imagine all this because the pigs, for the most part, do not take visitors.

“We wear clean suits and take extreme caution so that a disease does not come through and wipe out 8,000 pigs,” Robinson said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An evaporation pond at a hog farm north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Livestock account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A significant portion of that is methane, which is a product of animal digestion. Methane is 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat, making it a top offender among greenhouse gasses.

“If you can take waste and turn that into fuel, that’s hard to beat,” said Hegewald, who specializes in renewable natural gas for Dominion Energy.

Robinson explained that Smithfield and the local Circle Four Farms operation have been experimenting with ways to utilize pig waste as an energy source for decades.

Years of tinkering and experimentation led to some success, but many failures.

How it works

“The biggest problem,” Robinson said, “Was that they were trying to move the waste around, and that’s just counterproductive. You burn fuel moving waste. Now, we just move the gas, which weighs nothing.”

Manure from each shed is flushed through an underground culvert into a nearby lined digester where 5 to 10 strains of bacteria break it down. The digester looks like a massive, lumpy grey waterbed — a sealed 35 million gallon lagoon of manure. Over the process of years, it is transformed into biogas.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A digester located next to a hog farm north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Hog waste runs into the digester and creates biogas.

Gas is then piped to a central facility to be processed into commercial-grade natural gas. This is where a third partner comes in, Roeslein & Associates, which made its name as one of the globe’s leading manufacturers of aluminum cans. The founder, Rudy Roeslein, was a conservationist who saw a way to apply his production system to process biogas.

Through this process the methane is stripped out to serve as natural gas for heating and cooking in homes. The Co2 is diverted and burned off at 1,600 degrees so that it breaks down into sulfur dioxide and water vapor and is about 25 times better for the atmosphere.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Machinery at a biogas conversion facility north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Finally, the gas is pumped to the eastern side of the valley where it is injected into the Kern River Pipeline, and sent on its way to California.

Why California?

“They offer the carbon credits that make this whole thing financially feasible,” said Hegewald.

The Big Picture

Average animal consumption is projected to grow significantly over the next few decades, as is the earth’s population. Unless vegetarianism becomes a lot more popular, humanity will need solutions to the greenhouse gas problem created by livestock waste.

The Milford waste-to-pipeline project, when fully realized, will create enough renewable natural gas to fuel 3,000 homes. It’s part of a larger biogas project by Dominion energy to produce enough renewable natural gas to offset carbon emissions by 2.5 million metric tons per year, or the amount sequestered by all the national forests along the Wasatch Front each year.

The project is just beginning to produce in earnest after a few years of pig manure digestion and has a long way to go.

Andrew Hegewald says it’s not glamorous work, especially when his kids ask him what he did at work that day. “‘Well,’” he tells them, “‘I fed poop into the pipeline.’ Not pretty, but it’s important.”