About Fibrowatt: The Poultry Litter to Energy Company

Jim Turner -- April 26th, 2010

Guest blogger Jim Turner begins this week’s series on the Fibrowatt power plants.

A few weeks ago, articles in the DNR and Page News & Courier mentioned that the company Fibrowatt was still looking for a place to locate in the Shenandoah Valley – the signs right now seem to point to Rockingham County. With some friends in Page County having just gone through the process of learning about how the company turns biomass into electricity, and evaluating whether this was a good business for the Page County community (eventually the Page County BOS turned them down), I thought I might turn my series of blog posts into a summary for others to reference. The team here at hburgnews has [agreed] to publish this series as a “guest blog” on their site – much appreciated!

There will be a series of five posts, including this one, that cover the following topics:

  • Who is Fibrowatt
  • An Overview of the Biomass to Energy Process
  • A Look at Fibrowatt’s Minnesota and North Carolina Projects
  • Fibrowatt’s Economic Impacts on Farms
  • Page County Says “No Thanks” to Fibrowatt

So how did we learn about Fibrowatt? Here is the quote in the NVDaily newspaper that got me started:

Legislation in Richmond from Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would establish tax credits and other incentives to encourage Fibrowatt LLC to locate a facility in Page County. We became aware a couple of months ago that they were looking at constructing one of their plants in the valley,” Gilbert said, adding that Page is considered a top contender for the site.

(Gilbert’s proposed legislation was pulled during this year’s legislative sessions.) Turns out, this press release may have been mistakenly published early, but it got a lot of us interested.

The article was very specific about a controversial location in Page County, and meant that discussions had already been underway, yet hardly any every day citizens knew about this opportunity. The estimated impacts – 300 construction jobs and 100 plant jobs after the plant is up and running – all sounded like a great investment for Page County. But this is an industrial process and it won’t be without its impacts, so on the Hawksbill Cabin blog we took a closer look at the technology that is used, the history of community relations, and some of the controversies that are related to this technology.

So, just who is Fibrowatt? A Google search will take you to a home page for the company, but summarizing, Fibrowatt LLC is owned by a New Hampshire-based holding company called Homeland Renewable Energy. Homeland Renewable Energy (HRE) was founded in 2000 by a management team that built and later sold three litter conversion electricity plants in the UK in the 1990’s. Their selling point on the idea: responding to the poultry industry’s need for a litter disposal alternative, by using it to generate renewable energy. HRE claims to be the only firm in the world with experience developing these types of plants.

That same Google search will identify a lot of past articles and press releases, including quotes like this one, from Energy Today Magazine:

Locating these plants near to major poultry producing centers is critical to the model’s long-term success. But Fibrowatt is sensitive to the needs of the communities it would like to enter. Although it is exploring potential future projects in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, and other states, the company’s philosophy is to only go where it’s invited.

It’s the last quote in the Energy Today article that hit home for me…from the NVDaily article I mentioned above, there’s this quote:

Officials in Page have been in discussions with Fibrowatt for some time, but have agreed not to speak publicly about the project, according to Gilbert. The county already has a site picked out in an industrial park that is in close proximity to a transmission line, he said.

Also, in a January issue of Page News & Courier, Luther Johnson’s front page piece talks about the Page County Economic Development Authority’s public meeting in Luray that week. Within the context of a discussion about Project Clover, the article concludes, “…Baughan confirmed that there is another business looking at possibly moving into Page County, but nondisclosure agreements prevent any further details from being shared.”

I set out on the process of learning more about Fibrowatt because I put the “biomass=green” concept together with the prospect of a good economic impact from their locating in Page County – it’s a pretty exciting idea on the face of it. Looking back on the experience, the fact that all public officials at the time were under nondisclosure agreement, despite the philosophical promise to “only go where it’s invited,” is a big part of why I became an advocate “against” Fibrowatt.

You can read more on my Hawksbill Cabin blog at www.hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com – just look for the “Fibrowatt” label in the right column, and it will take you to the whole history of the Page County experience last January through March [2010].

Photo by Salim Vohra.

Jim Turner is a management consultant in his day job, but his real passion is the weekends he spends at the Hawksbill Cabin, near Stanley and Luray, Virginia. He keeps a blog on the weekender lifestyle, which is where this material about Fibrowatt and Page County was first published.

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11 Responses to “About Fibrowatt: The Poultry Litter to Energy Company”

  1. An intriguing start. I look forward to reading the rest of this series!

  2. seth says:

    this is off topic, but does anyone know anything about a petition to drill for natural gas out near bergton (i think the drilling process is called hydrofracking). i saw an email talking about it last night that went to a kind of disparate list (some folks i didn’t know, some i know, some i know to be hippies, some i know to have no interest whatsoever in environmental type issues), and was curious as to whether this has just been under my radar, or generally off the map.

    • Lowell Fulk says:

      Seth,
      I know of a petition “against”. Is that what you’re referencing?
      I can put you in touch with the folks leading that effort if you’d like.

  3. Jim T says:

    Hi,

    A quick note to all and to thank the Hburgnews team for the opportunity to reprint some of my past posts on Fibrowatt.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t start out to have an opinion for or against the plant. I was mainly interested in the technology, and since I see sustainability as more of a process for getting from a very inefficient state now to something better in the future, considered that Fibrowatt might have something here that could be a good interim step for that future state.

    As I researched and wrote my posts, I did end up forming and then sharing an opinion about Fibrowatt…and as a blogger I ended up in something of an advocate role for that opinion. I worked hard to find reliable sources, such as they are in the internet age (and here I mean sources like Wikipedia), to evaluate what I was finding, and then started to form my own conclusions.

    Rather than sharing here where I ended up on the topic, especially since we’re working on how to treat some of that material in the upcoming posts, I’ll just let you know that upfront.

    Thanks again for reading the post. The venue is much appreciated.

    “Cabin Jim”
    Hawksbill Cabin

  4. Lindsay says:

    Fibrowatt has a blog called The Straight Poop: Straight Answers to Real Questions

    http://www.thestraightpoop.org/

  5. Jim T says:

    Thanks Lindsay.

    Terry Walmsley of Fibrowatt mentioned the blog in his March 2 presentation at Page County. It looks like he has increased the pace of his posts on the blog following the encounter in Page.

    Over the course of my original posts, I talked to him a couple of times about community engagement, which they do very well most of the time.

    I’ll leave it to others to judge for themselves whether his approach to engaging people who disagree with him is constructive.

    Best,
    Jim

  6. Ernie says:

    Here’s a lead: you might want to consult the local extension agent Eric Bendfeldt on what is already going on in the Valley regarding turning poultry litter into energy. Fibrowatt isn’t the only game in town.

    • Jim T says:

      Ernie,

      Thanks for the tip. I have a huge backlog on green energy stuff coming out of the research I did, and Eric sounds like a great interview candidate.

      I could start ANOTHER blog to cover this stuff. :-)

      Jim

  7. Parent says:

    Not such a good idea within a radius of such a quasi-urban area as Harrisonburg. The airborne issues alone are pretty awful. Check out the problems the city of Carthage, Mo has had with their similar type business.

    • Jim T says:

      Parent –

      The site that was proposed in Page County is midway between the towns of Stanley and Luray, both being about 4 miles distant to the south and north, respectively.

      Looking at the two airfields in that area (there is an airport at the Caverns, and a grass field near the proposed site for the plant), it’s clear that the prevailing winds are…north-south.

      To be fair to Fibrowatt, Terry said the Gilbert press release was the first time the company had been associated with a specific site in Virginia.

      My opinion, but whoever proposed this site in Page County clearly hadn’t done a full site selection exercise…that’s a big rationale for all the research I did on the subject.

      Fibrowatt is still looking at the Valley, by the way. If you find info here that is a concern, you should think about letting elected officials know. It’s best to engage them early.

      Cabin Jim

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