Appeared as part of the Sponsored Section Cash Crop in the March 2018 issue.
Tom Butler is a Harnett County farmer, environmentalist and, now, his own electric utility.
For most, electricity is a one-way street flowing from a conventional grid to consumers. Butler is both customer and producer, thanks to a resource he literally had sitting around.
“We had no idea of the environmental impact when we started growing hogs,” he says. “We went from 10 pigs to 8,000 pigs.” Thousands of hogs create about 6,000 tons of methane annually, a number multiplied by 23 years as a contract grower for Clinton-based Prestage Farms Inc. Butler stored waste in covered lagoons and gradually burned off the methane. Until the microgrid.
The idea of a microgrid isn’t new — hospitals, for example, might have one as a source of backup electricity in a storm — but the idea of a microgrid for a neighborhood is new. What if, during the next hurricane, your home still had power despite broad outages? Normally, a microgrid is connected to a traditional grid but during outages, it can operate in “island” mode, generating and storing energy independently.
Butler Farms had most of the ingredients: Hog waste plus solar panels to generate energy. Thanks to a partnership with its local utility, Dunn-based South River Electric Membership Corp., and Raleigh-based N.C. Electric Cooperatives, the farm also has a 180-kilowatt biogas generator. Soon, island mode at the Butler Farms microgrid can be expanded to “island feeder,” supplying power to nearby homes, about 28 to begin with.
The possibilities of peer-to-peer electricity stand to change the way we see utilities. For Butler, this first step means being a better neighbor, worth an investment he puts somewhere between $700,000 and $1 million since 2008. “The fact that we have a small hog farm with battery storage, diesel standby [power], a biogas generator and solar, to me, that’s pretty amazing.”
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