State Agencies Weighing Benefits Of Burning Poultry Litter To Generate Electricity

Andrew Jenner -- May 4th, 2011

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New Market, April 20. The morning’s luck is not good. Mark Deavers’ semi trailer, filled with 25 tons of poultry litter, has broken down. Spring is his busiest time of year, when farmers up and down the Valley place orders with Deavers, a litter broker who spreads the stuff on their fields.

Photo by Holly Marcus for hburgnews.com

Poultry litter, a mixture of chicken or turkey manure and bedding materials scraped from the barn floor, is loaded with nutrients, and is abundant and inexpensive, making it the fertilizer of choice in the Valley. That practice has become the subject of increasing environmental scrutiny, however, as excessive or improper application pollutes local streams and the Chesapeake Bay with too much nitrogen and phosphorous.

Now, change is being thrust upon the traditional use of litter as fertilizer, with an ambitious, recently launched plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Virginia’s commitments under that plan include a promise to remove at least 75,000 tons of poultry litter each year from land application in the Bay watershed by 2025.

Central and southern Chesapeake Bay watershed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The state agencies charged with figuring out how, exactly, to accomplish that – the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) – have identified burning poultry litter to generate electricity as their best option. And while they begin evaluating the environmental impact of doing that, Fibrowatt, an energy development company that’s already been active in the area, continues to pursue construction of a litter-burning plant in the Valley that could power tens of thousands of homes.

Today, Deavers is worried about his broken-down truck. A few years down the road, he’s worried that most of the Valley’s poultry litter will be fueling a power plant somewhere nearby, jeopardizing his job in the process.

Let It Burn?

The technologies involved aren’t anything unusual. Litter, as opposed to, say, coal, would be burned in a furnace to heat a boiler, creating steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. Just one such litter-burning power plant now operates in the country, in Benson, Minn., generating enough power 40,000 homes.

To supporters, the idea is attractive in several regards. Litter is an abundant, homegrown and renewable resource, they say, and using it to keep the lights on represents a productive solution to the environmental problems caused by excessive use of litter as a fertilizer.

“This seems to be a viable option,” said Russ Perkinson, assistant director of the DCR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation. “We’re not saying it’s necessarily going to happen, but the Commonwealth thinks it’s worth looking into and evaluating.”

In collaboration with the DEQ, Perkinson is leading a cost-benefit analysis of building a large litter-burning power plant somewhere in the Valley. If the study concludes that doing so would help the state achieve its water quality goals, Perkinson said, it would welcome the private development of a litter-to-energy plant.

Meanwhile, opposition to the state’s plan has already emerged from citizens concerned with a litter-burning power plant’s possible impact on air quality, public health, local infrastructure and Shenandoah National Park and the regional tourism industry.

The same concerns arose locally last year, after Fibrowatt, the company that developed Minnesota’s litter-burning plant, floated plans to build a similar facility in Page County. There, strong public outcry prompted the county Board of Supervisors to break off talks with Fibrowatt. One of the biggest objections raised in Page County was the fact that Minnesota fined its Fibrowatt plant for several permit violations soon after it came online, including excess emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.

A pile of poultry litter. Photo by Andrew Jenner.

Still, the DEQ and DCR are moving ahead with their own study. With the help of an advisory group – including representatives from Fibrowatt, agriculture, environmental groups and others – they have identified several areas of research that will allow them to determine whether the construction of a litter-to-energy plant would be of net benefit to regional environmental health. These areas of research, to be conducted by universities in the area, include:

• determining the region’s available supply of litter;

• measuring the water-quality benefit of removing 75,000 tons of litter a year from use as fertilizer;

• gauging the air-quality impact of a large litter-burning facility;

• determining the effect of using the litter ash as a fertilizer locally; and,

• projecting the cost of alternative solutions, such as subsidized transport of litter out of the Bay watershed.

Because the permit-granting and construction of a plant could take years, Perkinson said the DEQ and DCR hope to complete this initial inquiry by the end of the year – an ambitious timeline driven by the EPA’s ambitious and strict new effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

“A lot of unanswered questions remain,” said Cale Jaffe, a senior attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center and a member of the advisory group. “It’s important that the state take the time to consider … and study [them].”

Fibrowatt Still Exploring Options In Region

Independent of the state’s inquiry, and despite its setback in Page County, Fibrowatt still wants to build a litter-to-energy plant in the region, said Terry Walmsley, the company’s vice president for environmental and public affairs. Walmsley said the company would like to build a plant capable of generating 40 to 55 megawatts of electricity, requiring far more poultry litter than 75,000-ton figure underlying the state study.

The 55-megawatt plant in Minnesota, called Fibrominn, uses more than 500,000 tons of litter annually. As a comparison, a recent study by Virginia Cooperative Extension estimated the total production of poultry litter in Rockingham, Augusta, Shenandoah and Page Counties at a little more than 400,000 tons per year. Fibrowatt has said that a Virginia plant would likely be a little smaller than Fibrominn, and that the company would likely need to truck in litter from neighboring areas of West Virginia to supplement what it can obtain in the Valley itself.

Because a Fibrowatt plant in the area would consume a huge amount of litter, already in high demand as a fertilizer, the company is now trying to get Valley poultry farmers to sign 10-year contracts to sell their litter to Fibrowatt for fuel. A contract offered to a Rockingham County chicken farmer, and shown to hburgnews.com, offered a maximum of $5 per ton for litter with up to 15 percent moisture content. That figure decreases to $3 per ton for litter with a moisture content up to 30 percent – a more typical figure for the area, Deavers said.

With Deavers now paying farmers $10 a ton for their litter for fertilizer, it seems that Fibrowatt, at first glance, will have a difficult time sourcing litter for a plant. Nevertheless, widespread concern exists among poultry farmers that stricter future regulation of land application of litter will diminish their ability to sell it as a fertilizer, making the Fibrowatt offer much more attractive as a long-term, paying market for litter. The Virginia Poultry Federation supports the idea of a litter-to-energy plant for that very reason: the creation of a new market for litter if, or when, its use as fertilizer is no longer as easy or lucrative.

Walmsley, who declined to reveal the number of contracts that local farmers have already signed with the company, emphasized that Fibrowatt is still in an early exploratory phase, and is conducting similar outreach in other areas of the country with large poultry industries.

Minnesota vs. Virginia: Important Regulatory Differences

As the only litter-fueled power plant now operating in the U.S., Fibrominn is often cited as precedent for a similar project in the Shenandoah Valley. Located in southwestern Minnesota, one of the biggest turkey-producing regions of the country, the plant came online in 2007 after about seven years of planning and construction.

Fibrominn plant in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Fibrowatt.

Differences in weather conditions, agricultural practices, environmental regulations and energy policy between Minnesota and Virginia, however, complicate the comparison between Fibrominn and something similar in the Valley.

First, longer winters and different crop and poultry production methods mean litter is not widely used as a fertilizer in Minnesota, said Allen Saunders, a corn and soybean farmer from Benson who serves on a citizen liaison panel between Fibrominn and the surrounding community. Additionally, stricter environmental regulation of using litter as fertilizer over the past decade gave the poultry industry further incentive to find alternative uses for its litter.

Finally, Minnesota has set a mandatory goal of generating 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, giving Xcel Energy, the utility in Benson, significant incentive to buy Fibrominn’s electricity. Virginia has a smaller renewable-energy goal of 12 percent by 2022 – and it is only a voluntary standard.

“So much of this is being driven by regulation,” said Saunders. “It changes the economics considerably when you have a power company that’s obligated to buy your renewable energy source at a certain value … Due to the regulation that we live under here in Minnesota, it became feasible to [build Fibrominn].”

Looking Ahead

Poultry houses in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo by Holly Marcus for hburgnews.com

Whatever becomes of Fibrowatt’s own efforts, the DEQ and DCR are proceeding with their cost-benefit analysis of burning litter, taking pains to emphasize the preliminary nature of their study.

“We’re just trying to get a handle initially on some of the environmental benefits and impacts of doing this,” said the DCR’s Perkinson, who added that the state has not begun identifying potential sites for a litter-burning power plant

Rick Weeks, DEQ chief deputy director and co-leader of the study with Perkinson, said that if the state decides to encourage Fibrowatt to build a litter-burning power plant, the process would be subject to the usual local approvals and oversight by state and federal regulatory agencies.

But at the same time, Weeks said, if a power plant doesn’t come to be, the fact remains that Virginia has promised the EPA to somehow reduce the use of litter as fertilizer in the Bay watershed by at least 75,000 tons per year by 2025.

“We need to find out if [burning litter] is really going to give us the benefits that we want, because if it doesn’t, the we have to figure out something else,” he said.

In other words, by the end of the year, the state expects to know if it’s going to throw its weight behind Fibrowatt or if it’s back to square one with even less time to come up with a better plan.

This story was edited by Mike Grundmann.

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