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Leighton McCoy is vice president-Distribution Technical Services at Dominion Energy’s Gas Distribution operating segment. He is responsible for pipeline safety, technical training, damage prevention, and other field support functions.

Nowadays, there are so many keywords attached to natural gas and energy industries: clean energy, natural energy, sustainable energy, and net-zero emissions, to name a few. These keywords are a response to our customers that want reduced emissions from various facilities and an environmentally sound global community. Well, the natural gas industry has taken note.

Sustainable energy is a form of energy that meets our demands without any danger of depletion or expiration. We are all familiar with some of the more popular forms of sustainable energy: solar, wind, heat, hydroelectric power, geothermal, and a new form, hydrogen. Biomass energy is another newer form of energy that refers to electric or gas energy.

When the biomass is allowed to decompose, it becomes methane gas. This gas can be captured and converted to gas or liquid fuel. Biomass feedstocks include animal manure, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, wood, and agricultural residue. Biomass energy combines our environmental benefits with the reliability of natural gas. So how does it work?

The biomass energy process begins on a livestock farm. If you visited one of these hog farms, for example, you would notice an open, grid-designed floor. This allows manure to fall through the floor to be captured. Once the waste is allowed to decompose, methane is produced and captured from covered lagoons or digesters. It is then transported to a conditioning factory. Next, the methane is processed and converted into renewable natural gas (RNG). Once the RNG is processed to meet pipeline-quality standards, it is put into existing pipelines to serve local homes and businesses.

Why is this a big deal? This process will allow the natural gas and energy industries to do their part to reduce emissions. This is our attempt, pledge, and motivation to have a cleaner environment, produce clean energy, and be responsible to our customers.

This is a big deal because it provides and presents new opportunities for STEM-focused students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These processes and phenomena were not available to me growing up, but they are for present-day college students.

I am extremely proud of the commitments a number of corporations have made on the heels of 2020. These businesses have acknowledged what many of us have known: There is a serious awareness divide and inequality.

I am proud to say Dominion has committed $25 million to HBCUs within our service territory. While the monetary commitment is important, I have had conversations regularly with HBCUs. They relay over and over that they want to make certain knowledge of these new industries and advancements is shared.

The goal is to move past this “moment” and create a movement for young professionals of color. Many of us do not view the natural gas industry as a career opportunity, but there are strong opportunities in geographic information systems (GIS), engineering, and agriculture. Any opportunity to introduce underrepresented communities and HBCU students to this industry is critical.

Consider this: Many of the students at HBCUs do not have the luxury of generational wealth. Often, when students deal with bumps in the road during their college tenure, they opt to take a gap year. It is usually the only option they feel they have. We corporate leaders need to give these students motivation through internships, so they have a purpose and reason to continue pursuing their careers.

The natural gas and energy industries are working to innovate and evolve to expand the horizon of what our kids can do and aspire to be. These are great opportunities for HBCU graduates who want a seat at the table as decision-makers when these changes take effect. Let us be sure we make these students aware of it.

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