The following Opinion/Editorial was posted Aug 29, 2016 at 2:11 PM by the StarNews.

By Gus Simmons for StarNews Media

North Carolina has the potential to gain $2.7 billion in new capital investment, nearly 24,300 construction and maintenance jobs, and a multitude of related industry-service jobs. How is that possible? By taking advantage of one of our most overlooked, yet very abundant, energy sources: biogas.

Those statistics reported by the American Biogas Council represent an enormous opportunity for North Carolina to harness methane from our agriculture, landfills, wastewater and food waste. If fully realized, this biogas energy could power nearly 500,000 homes.

We have already begun to see the economic benefits of diversifying N.C.’s energy mix as our utilities increase their use of solar and most recently wind energy. These renewable energy projects and businesses have provided exciting new economic opportunities for communities all across our state.

As an engineer who loves to come up with “better ways” to do things, the biogas potential for N.C. motivates me as I design and refine anaerobic digester (AD) technology to use animal waste from farms or trash in our landfills to make power, which, in turn, converts an economic burden into a valuable resource. As we look for where we can continue to innovate and keep our economy robust, bioenergy projects offer an incredible prospect.

As of 2015, the American Biogas Council ranked North Carolina No. 3 for methane production potential (MPP) from biogas sources and identified 75 operational biogas projects. Of the 75, 10 were classified as agriculture.

By comparison, Wisconsin, another big ag state, has 135 operational biogas projects, 35 of which are farm-based. While their MPP is much lower at 27, Wisconsin has made harnessing biogas a priority for the state’s energy mix in large part because of its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law. Like Wisconsin, the venture into biogas projects in the Tar Heel State will help rural communities thrive, while aligning perfectly with the N.C. Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) law.

Considering agriculture brings $84 billion to North Carolina’s economy, and many communities rely on ag to stay afloat, we must find new and reliable ways to sustain it through new markets, like bioenergy. As an engineer who helps design AD technology that captures animal methane on farms to create electricity, I have seen firsthand how the benefits go well beyond economics.

For operations like Loyd Ray Farms in Yadkinville, a facility that houses nearly 9,000 pigs, harnessing biogas from waste has multiple benefits for the farm and the community. Beyond the most obvious benefit of generating electricity from animal waste, installing AD technology helps power nearly half the farm’s operations. It reduces utility bills and reduces ammonia, meaning better air quality for livestock. For nearby communities, the completely enclosed system also results in improved air and water quality.

With 15 agricultural biogas projects online in N.C., we have only just begun to take advantage of the renewable supply of waste and convert it into something more valuable. Experts estimate we have the potential to bring 900 biogas projects online. Of those, over 700 would benefit agriculture and the surrounding communities in Duplin, Sampson, Bladen, Lenoir and Johnston counties, just to name a few.

As we work toward creating a solid roadmap to bring more farms online, it is abundantly clear we are making great strides in making “waste-to-value” technology a reality for a multitude of animal operations across our state. At the same time, we will be improving water and air quality, creating on-farm efficiencies, and helping rural communities flourish.

Gus Simmons, a licensed professional engineer, is Director of Bioenergy at Cavanaugh, in Wilmington. He serves on the board of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.