Jim Turner -- April 28th, 2010
Guest blogger Jim Turner continues his series on the Fibrowatt power plant:
The information I was finding led me to search for more background on Fibrowatt. In addition to the Page County project I had found, on Fibrowatt’s home page I learned about projects in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and Mississippi. There is an established 55-Megawatt (MW) plant in Benson, Minnesota. And there are plans for three plants in North Carolina, in Montgomery, Surry, and Sampson counties.
There is a startling difference of opinions about the impact of a Fibrowatt plant. The Benson community seems overwhelmingly happy with their plant, yet I found a lot of discussions about environmental and other issues when I researched the communities in North Carolina. So looking into this difference of opinion became a major thrust of my research. Eventually, I talked with Fibrowatt officials, and I even talked with the Benson City Manager; after that, the North Carolina people started reaching out to me.
Here are some highlights about the Minnesota plant, from the “Fibrominn” site:
- First poultry litter-fueled power plant in the U.S., began operating in mid-2007
- Uses more than 500,000 tons of poultry litter annually, as well as other biomass
- 55-megawatt power plant that produces enough electricity to serve approximately 40,000 homes; electricity is sold to Xcel Energy
- Created 100 full-time jobs – 30 on site, 60 in litter transportation, and 10 at the ash fertilizer plant; provided several hundred construction-related jobs over a two-and-a-half year period
Analysis led me to clarify the 100 jobs impact – when I talked with Fibrowatt, they were clear about the nature of the jobs, which led me to adjust my estimates to 40 new jobs. Transportation jobs were probably already out there – they were just now associated with the plant. This issue is highlighted in an [online] discussion:
News that a litter-burning power plant may be built in the area does raise concern among brokers who sell litter for fertilizer.
“It’s a good thing if it helps us move litter … (But) if it puts me out of business, that’s a bad thing,” said Mark Deavers, a broker from Rockingham County, Va.
Deavers said he and his colleagues are concerned that a power plant could place such high demand for litter – already difficult to meet at times — that it will no longer be affordable as a fertilizer, and that brokers’ services won’t be needed.
Still, 40 new “green energy” jobs, coming to Page County, which had an 18 percent unemployment rate in February 2009, seemed like a great potential opportunity.
The Minnesota community, Benson, formed a Citizens Advisory Panel in 2001 to discuss and resolve issues related to truck traffic, odor, facility layout, and air emissions. On my blog, I spent a couple of days’ worth of posts reviewing the meeting minutes. There [was] an open discussion – and the Benson community generally stayed supportive of the plant during the whole process.
By now, I was getting regular posts and comments from North Carolina stakeholders – a doctor, for one, and others following the Yadkin River Keeper organization. There was also an environmental activist organization that I was skeptical of at first, because of the good press I’d read, and the high level of engagement I was reading about.
One of my questions to the Benson City Manager [as transcribed on my blog] was the following:
…There is a lot of activism from environmental groups in North Carolina related to the three Fibrowatt plants slated for that state. Were these interests present in Benson? Why do you think these causes are involved in North Carolina?
- A plant like this is going to encounter resistance from individuals
- In the NC case, appear to be well-funded interests, no similar issues in Benson
- Farmers recognized the nutrient value of the litter, but saw regulation coming up about its use and the prospective loss of its value
- Discussion here about the ability to apply litter only twice a season in Minnesota due to climate, issues about storage, risk of run-off due to large storage “dumps”
- As a farming community, Benson recognized the value of the opportunity as a job creation impact, less concerned with other potential impacts
The North Carolina folks had mentioned an emissions problem with the Minnesota plant, so I dug into the news first, then into permitting docs and press releases for more info. Here’s the Fibrowatt story, which says the violations were not the company’s fault, but rather were caused by their contractor, and here’s the Minnesota state permit [that] described a range of chemical compounds and proscribes “acceptable” amounts of them in emissions – an issue to carefully weigh against any promise of new jobs for [Page] County.
Then I found a New York Times article, which was written about a proposed Fibrowatt plant in Maryland:
…according to its air permits, the plant is a major source of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen sulfide.
In the Minnesota permit itself, several other emissions are noted, including sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid.
It turns out that many of these compounds are greenhouse gases, meaning they will impact visibility and have a long-term impact on the larger environment. But some of them are used as industrial corrosives and are also identified as health risks. Consider the following from several Wikipedia articles:
- Sulfur dioxide is associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.
- Sulfuric acid is a component of acid rain, and is highly corrosive.
- Hydrochloric acid – Both the mist and the solution have a corrosive effect on human tissue, with the potential to damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines.
- Carbon monoxide is a major atmospheric pollutant in some urban areas, chiefly from the exhaust of internal combustion engines (including vehicles, portable and back-up generators, lawn mowers, power washers, etc.), but also from improper burning of various other fuels (including wood, coal, charcoal, oil, paraffin, propane, natural gas, and trash).
Finally, nitrous oxide was also noted to be a greenhouse gas.
The Fibrowatt site does not mention these materials specifically – nor does it mention their risks, and the use of the word “alleged” when referring to the violation, and their payment of a fine and agreement to take corrective actions, all started to raise [my] concerns about the content of the steam exhaust coming from their plant. With the Page County geography being the pocket valley that it is, I worried that the particulate matter would concentrate, rather than dispersing in the air as it would in Minnesota’s flat terrain.
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.