Photo: Shutterstock
Breaking even financially with biogas production is difficult, but many companies want to be at the forefront of this technology. Photo: Shutterstock

A growing number of big food vendors, universities and even sports teams are beginning to embrace biogas production as a means of reducing waste and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while creating renewable energy. But breaking even financially remains a challenge.

Pork production giant Smithfield Foods has been dabbling in biogas generation since 2003, when it unveiled its now-defunct swine waste–to–biodiesel plant near Milford, Utah.

Its most recent project, in Utah and Missouri, seeks to turn swine waste into renewable power for the local grid — saving Smithfield money on disposal costs and reducing odors and GHG emissions.

While the Utah project is currently providing power to local energy grids, the Missouri plant is still flaring off its biogas — using the project as a form of “cost avoidance” rather than a direct source of profit from energy sales, The Guardian reports.

Although Smithfield’s Utah plant is running smoothly, The Guardian noticed its energy partner, Alpental Energy Partners, wasn’t working to build similar facilities and asked executives why.

“There’s a simple reason we’re not lining up 30 new Smithfield facilities,” Brady Olson, VP at Alpental, told the paper. “We look at each of these projects on a cash flow basis. From an investment standpoint, if you’re trying to build one of these to make money, it’s more challenging than it was three years ago.”

The VP cited downward pressure on energy prices, lower overall demand for energy and the phasing out of some tax incentives for these programs as prime challenges in the success of biogas facilities.

While it can be tough to break even, similar projects continue to pop up across the country. Major sports teams, including the Cleveland Browns and Boston Red Sox, have launched successful on-site anaerobic digesters to process food waste at stadiums, while food vendor Kroger Foods is partially powering its Compton, Calif., distribution center with food waste–sourced biogas.

“We are committed to finding solutions for food waste and clean energy, and we believe this is a meaningful step forward,” Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s president and chief operating officer, said when the biogas project launched earlier this year. “Investing in this project is a good business decision for Kroger and, most importantly, an extraordinary opportunity to benefit the environment.”

Lingering challenges may slow biogas adoption, but many companies that are trying it echo McMullen’s forward-thinking thought process — acknowledging that while it may be tough to make a buck off biogas now, it’s a worthwhile investment to be on the cutting edge of such environmentally promising projects moving forward.

Want more information? Supermarket Waste: Where Does It Go?

By Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.