Fibrowatt’s Poultry Litter-to-Energy Process

Jim Turner -- April 27th, 2010

Guest blogger Jim Turner continues his series on the Fibrowatt power plant:

When I first came across the news about the prospect of Fibrowatt locating in Page County, I’ll be the first to admit that I thought it was an exciting opportunity. But I also immediately recognized the controversy this prospect would raise – some kind of balance between environmental concerns and business/economics had to be found when we talk about a new business with an industrial process coming to town.

One of the value statements with the Fibrowatt process is the idea that this is a kind of renewable or sustainable energy that provides an alternative means of disposal for chicken litter. Fibrowatt’s materials mention pending legislation that would ban spreading the litter – that stuff has to go somewhere, and often the poultry farmer’s least expensive means of getting rid of it is to spread it.

We hear that chicken litter has a negative impact on the Chesapeake Bay, which is connected to our area via the Potomac River and then the Shenandoah River watershed as you go upstream. Why not burn it – call it incineration or combustion – but what’s the impact of current poultry litter disposal processes and will a Fibrowatt plant contribute to reducing that?

That, said, from the company’s web site, here is a summary of how they make power:

Fibrowatt assists area growers with poultry litter removal and then transports the poultry litter in tightly covered trucks on prearranged routes to the facility. The trucks then discharge the litter within a specially designed fuel storage building, which is kept at negative pressure to prevent the escape of odors. The litter is combusted at more than 1,500° F, ensuring the destruction of odor and pathogens. Water is heated in a boiler to produce high-pressure, high-temperature steam, which drives a turbine and generates electricity. The remaining ash by-product is beneficially used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

There are other ways to produce energy from poultry litter, which I found with a quick Google search:

“A gasifier converts organic materials into gas rather than burning it,” said Plodinec, noting the units would be sited at poultry houses around the state. “Then, the gas can be moved somewhere else and burned cleanly. You can generate relatively small but significant amounts of electricity right there for the person who needs it.”

This is from a Mississippi State article, which goes on to describe an alternative process that can produce commercial chemicals as opposed to fuels.

I also found a 2002 article that discussed various ways that litter can be used for energy, emphasizing what were then emerging farm-scale technologies, but it [was] also referring to some of the issues that larger scale operations need to be aware of and manage, including ash management (the ash can be used as fertilizer, a byproduct of the process), plant emissions, and other regulatory concerns. That article even references Fibrowatt’s plants in England, highlighting their emissions control systems.

The Department of Energy mentions two processes:

  • Anaerobic Digestion – converting biomass, especially human, animal, and agricultural waste, into methane and carbon dioxide. The biomass is mixed with water and stored in an airtight tank, where a natural process does its work – this is considered a costly but efficient process for biomass energy production.
  • Pyrolysis – this process heats biomass in sealed containers without oxygen, producing gas and charcoal from the decomposition of the materials. While the process reduces carbon dioxide output, which is one of the side effects of the other processes, it requires the biomass to be heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit – a process that requires significant amounts of energy in its own right.

As my research went on, I realized that all of the resources I reviewed mention the potential for gas and particulate emissions from the biomass combustion process – greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, and particulates and hydrocarbons that contribute to effects such as acid rain. Modern combustion technologies are designed to improve management of these byproducts, so that the effects are reduced or even eliminated. From Wikipedia:

A problem with the combustion of raw biomass is that it emits considerable amounts of pollutants…even modern pellet boilers generate much more pollutants than oil or natural gas boilers. Pellets made from agricultural residues are usually worse than wood pellets…However,…numerous studies have shown that biomass fuels have significantly less impact on the environment than fossil based fuels.

Let’s summarize the pros and cons based on this review of the biomass combustion process.

Pros – offers an alternative method for disposing of poultry waste, instead of spreading it or land filling it. It has a reduced environmental impact when compared to the combustion of other fuels. Poultry litter, as an industrial-agricultural by-product, is readily available.

Cons – there is the potential for particulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion process. Due to transport and other requirements, it is not the most efficient energy production methodology, and therefore, it is likely to be more expensive energy than other processes. [In this author’s conclusion, based on his research]

You can read more about Fibrowatt on my Hawksbill Cabin blog – 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.

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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5 Responses to “Fibrowatt’s Poultry Litter-to-Energy Process”

  1. If Virginia wants to have 1)CAFO Poultry (concentrated animal feed operation), and 2)a living river and Chesapeake Bay, then Virginia needs to manage poultry waste effectively. Do like Maryland, subsidize the transportation of poultry litter to where the nutrients are needed, or require the producers to do so.

    We have coal mine reclamation sites that could use this stuff. Same with West Virginia.

    Fibrowatt’s process is stoneage. Virginia Tech has the pyrolyzer solution. And it could heat poultry houses.

    • Jim T says:


      Actually, Virginia does subsidize the removal of the litter for some counties – Page County is one. Virginia Dept of Ag will pay receiving farmers in other counties a stipend to spread Page County litter. Its not the case with all counties, but it is in ours.

      Good point on the farm-level use also – when I mentioned my conclusion about inefficiency, it was about transportation of the bulky weight. A use at the point of production would be better.

      Cabin Jim

  2. William Blackley, MD says:

    Hi Jim, I appreciate your close attention to the company Fibrowatt that would insinuate itself into your communities. Burning biomass and poultry litter emits a lot of pollution that increases the health risk to citizens.

    The Massachusetts and Florida Medical Societies and many members of the Physicians for Social Responsibility have adopted resolutions and positions opposing these plants based on health risks to humans.

    Now the North Carolina Academy of Family Practice has added its name to the list of those concerned about the consequences of incinerating poultry litter and biomass (the definition of Fibrowatt). See this well referenced letter of concern released last week by the North Carolina Academy of Family Practice.

    April 19, 2010

    The Honorable Dee Freeman
    N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
    1601 Mail Service Center
    Raleigh, NC 27699-1601

    Dear Secretary Freeman:

    In recognition of the numerous and serious adverse health consequences that can result from human exposure to the components of emissions of biomass burning, the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians (NCAFP) is issuing a letter of concern regarding the development of biomass burning plants in the State of North Carolina.

    Biomass burning of poultry litter and wood wastes creates emissions of particulate matter that research has shown increase the risk of premature death, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and heart disease. (1, 2) This burning process also creates numerous byproducts, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that increase smog and ozone, which are known to increase lung disease and mortality (3); sulfur dioxides which also contribute to respiratory disease (4); arsenic which can increase the risk of cancer (5); mercury which can increase the risk of brain and kidney disease and affect the developing fetus (6); and dioxins which may increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, developmental delays in children, neurotoxicity, and thyroid disease (7). These health effects would increase disability and death in all age groups, but particularly in the most vulnerable—developing fetuses, newborns, children, those with chronic illness, and the elderly. As a result of this increased disability and disease, medical costs in the state will increase.

    One of the reasons for encouraging renewable energy through legislation like the North Carolina Clean Smokestack law was to provide cleaner air for citizens. However, there is concern that burning of poultry litter may result in similar or greater emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide to coal- burning plants (8). The NCAFP requests that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources strongly consider the potentially harmful consequences to the health and wellbeing of North Carolina citizens when contemplating the permitting of biomass burning plants in the state.

    With best regards,

    R.W. (Chip) Watkins, MD, MPH
    President, NC Academy of Family Physicians

    cc: Jeffrey P. Engle, MD, North Carolina State Health Director
    Jennifer L. Mullendore, MD, Co-Chair, NCAFP Health of the Public Council
    Thomas R. White, MD, Co-Chair, NCAFP Health of the Public Council
    Gregory K. Griggs, MPA, CAE, NCAFP Executive Vice President

    Page 2
    April 16, 2010
    Page Two
    1. EPA. Particulate Matter. [Online]. 2008 May 9 [cited 2010 Apr 1]; [1 page]. Available from:
    2. Dominici F, Peng RD, Bell ML, Pham L, McDermott A, Zeger SL, Samet JM. Fine Particulate Air Pollution and
    Hospital Admission for Cardiovascular and Respiratory Diseases. JAMA 2006 Mar; 295(10):1127-1134.
    3. Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Pope CA, Ito K, Thurston G, Krewski D, Shi Y, Calle E, Thun M. Long-Term Ozone Exposure
    and Mortality. NEJM 2009 Mar; 360(11):1085-1095.
    4. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs for Sulfur Dioxide. [Online]. 2010 Feb 18 [cited 2010
    Apr 1]; [1 page]. Available from:
    5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs for Arsenic. [Online]. 2010 Feb 18 [cited 2010 Apr 1];
    [1 page]. Available from:
    6. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs for Mercury. [Online]. 2010 Feb 18 [cited 2010 Apr
    1]; [1 page]. Available from:
    7. The National Academy of Science. Health Risks from Dioxin and Related Compounds. [Online]. 2006 [cited 2009
    Mar 12]; [6 pages]. Available from:
    8. Henderson B. The Scoop on Future Power? [Online]. 2006 Apr 1. [cited 2010 Apr 1] Originally in the Charlotte
    Observer. Available from:

  3. Jim T says:

    While I am not a doctor as Dr. Blackley is, there is a short list of some of the particulate matter in Fibrowatt steam exhaust and associated health risks in today’s post “Fibrowatt’s US Projects.”

  4. Jackie Payne says:

    Thank you. I appreciate your attention to this matter, as Fibrowatt wants to builda plant within one mile of my home. We are all devastated, as this seems to be a “done deal” behind the scenes with bankers and real estate barons at the helm. I went to JMU back when it was Madison College. I moved to Lavonia, GA for the same clean mountain air I enjoyed there. I am a Civil Engineer and would love any help to stop permits or whatever.
    Jackie Payne

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