Plan for manure-burning power plant could be revived

On the Farm

November 25, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

If Maryland moves forward with a chicken manure-burning electric power plant, a British company could revive its plans to build the facility on the Eastern Shore.

Fibrowatt Ltd. first proposed a plant that would produce electricity from poultry manure nearly 10 years ago, after runoff from grain fields fertilized with chicken manure was blamed for toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida. The microorganism caused fish kills and forced three Maryland rivers to be closed to recreational use.

Fibrowatt, which was operating two poultry manure-burning plants in England in 1997 and had a third under construction, offered to build a plant here that would burn about 400,000 tons of chicken manure a year and produce more than enough electricity to supply a city the size of Salisbury.

The company's plan to expand to the United States fizzled when the General Assembly failed to approve a tax credit to help finance the project.

With the Eastern Shore poultry industry producing about a billion pounds of manure annually, environmentalists and farmers are looking for ways to reduce pollution. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler called for a manure-burning plant this month during a speech at the Eastern Shore Poultry Summit in Salisbury. Turning manure into power would substantially improve the watershed, he said.

And Fibrowatt's technology has made inroads in this country.

Fibrowatt LLC, a Philadelphia-based derivative of the British company, opened its first U.S. poultry litter-fueled power plant last month in Benson, Minn. The facility can burn about 500,000 tons of turkey litter a year and can produce enough electricity for 40,000 homes.

Rupert Fraser, chief executive officer, is again looking at the Eastern Shore for a plant site and has begun "very preliminary" discussions with the state, he said.

"I guess the Minnesota plant gives us more credibility," Fraser said.

The company would construct a 20-megawatt to 40-megawatt plant in Maryland. The larger plant, Fraser said, would generate enough electricity to serve 30,000 homes as it burned about 400,000 tons of chicken manure annually.

The company is also looking at possible sites in North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Alabama, he said.

"We only go where we are invited and where we are wanted," Fraser said. "The poultry industry has to want us, and the utilities have to want us to come in."

Farmers said they would welcome the project but would limit the amount of manure burned.

"I have no problems with a plant coming in to burn excess chicken manure," said Lewis R. Riley, a Wicomico County poultry farmer and former state agriculture secretary.

But, he added, "Chicken manure is not a waste product. To the farmer, it is a very valuable resource."

As long as farmers follow their nutrient-management plants, there are no problems with using manure as a fertilizer, Riley said. Grain farmers have found manure to be a nutrient-rich fertilizer that helps grow healthy crops such as corn and soybeans. Manure reduces the farmers' need for chemical fertilizers and cuts planting costs by at least 30 percent, he said.

"It takes a certain amount of nutrients to raise a crop," he said. "It takes a crop to raise a profit, and it takes a profit for a farmer to stay in business.

"A profitable farm is the best ag land-preservation program, and farms create the open space that safeguards the Chesapeake Bay."

Fibrowatt's power plant proposal has made the short list of technologies that the Maryland Environmental Service is considering as ways to rid the Eastern Shore of excess chicken litter, said James M. Harkins, former Harford County executive and the organization's director.

Harkins called the proposal "one of the two most promising technologies" being evaluated by the state. The other is an anaerobic digester that produces methane gas from manure. Harkins said he is uncertain when the MES will make its recommendation.

"It could be that manure may be worth more as fertilizer than as fuel for a power plant," Harkins said. "It may be better to truck any excess manure to farms on the Western Shore for use as fertilizer."

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