September 22, 2006

A century after horses relinquished to automobiles their lead role in American transportation, horsepower may be making a comeback.

With help from the federal and state governments, Anne Arundel County recently commissioned an $85,000 study to determine whether horse manure can efficiently be used to produce electricity and liquid fuel for motor vehicles.

The notion of converting animal waste into an alternate energy source is not new, but such efforts have proved impractical when the conversion process was too expensive or the waste - such as chicken manure - was more commercially valuable as a fertilizer.

In this case, though, Anne Arundel's growing horse population is producing more manure than the county's dwindling number of farmers can use. In fact, the trend is for crop farmers to convert their properties to more lucrative riding stables. Widespread use of sawdust instead of straw for stall bedding further reduces the value of horse manure as a fertilizer source because sawdust takes longer to decompose.

But as a potential power source, horse poop could be perfect: plentiful, clean-burning, and locally produced. What's more, the conversion process could also neatly solve the vexing problem of how to dispose of the stuff. If successful, the process would combine manure with "green" landscape waste and methane gas seeping from the long-closed Sudley landfill to produce enough fuel to be self-sustaining. Researchers will be trying to determine the appropriate "recipe" for the mix, and what form of energy would be most efficient to produce.

The study is expected to take 18 months, and potentially spur a community debate about whether it makes sense to locate an energy conversion plant at the landfill.

If all goes well, before too long a region often traversed by horses headed to and from recreational outings in truck-pulled trailers may see the equines traveling once again under a form of their own power.

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