COMBS: Renewable Natural Gas Can Help North Carolina Rural Communities Right Now

FILE PHOTO: Ryan Combs, executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

The world is now nine months into the COVID-19 crisis, and many of us feel helpless to stop the devastating effects of this pandemic in our communities. As executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, it is our responsibility to work alongside our 12 member counties on strategies to spur economic development.

One way that not only the Research Triangle Region, but also the entire state of North Carolina could prosper economically is through continued strategic investment and support around clean and renewable energy. North Carolina has been on the forefront of many renewable technologies, including wind, solar and hydro-electric power. As a matter of fact, these three technologies now produce roughly 10 percent of the energy load for North Carolina energy consumers. (North Carolina is second only to California in solar energy production.)

Because of our state’s forward-thinking approach around clean energy, the Triangle region has benefited greatly by the growth of the cleantech sector. In the last five years alone, this sector has grown by 25 percent, and we now have more than 1,850 cleantech companies contributing $4.6 billion to our regional economy each year.

Our region and state now have an opportunity to be a leader in another clean energy technology, renewable natural gas (RNG). RNG is produced by collecting and processing organic waste, such as hog and poultry manure, capturing the methane gas from the waste, cleaning the gas and injecting the gas into our existing natural gas pipelines. RNG is a steady and reliable resource unlike wind and solar, which are dependent on the weather and have limited storage capacity. Adding RNG to our current and diverse energy portfolio will benefit all of us greatly by providing energy customers with a diverse array of reliable and affordable sources of clean energy.

RNG would benefit everyone from producers to end users, specifically our rural communities. Farmers will benefit by creating new revenue streams, while decreasing the costs associated with manure management. That frees up capital for farmers to reinvest into their operations, bringing new technologies and sustainable growth to their local communities. Rural businesses will also benefit by having an affordable energy supply to support essential services, such as food storage, hospitals and other mission-critical facilities.

From an environmental standpoint, North Carolina would become a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions simply by investing in RNG production. As our state is one of the top producers of both hogs and broilers, waste is a critical issue that remains on the forefront of environmental concern. When organic waste is used in RNG production, greenhouse gases associated with waste are reduced, making RNG a carbon negative product—which is critical for addressing climate change.

It’s clear that the transition to cleaner energy sources will continue to move forward, and it is crucial that North Carolina find ways to leverage this transition and use it to strengthen our rural communities. Renewable natural gas offers a path forward that works for our economy and environment. The time is right for North Carolina to embrace this opportunity and become a national leader in renewable energy production.

Ryan Combs is the executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.