After long, frustrating decades of trying to stem nutrient runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland is promoting a grand plan for turning a huge pollution problem into an energy asset.
On its face, the plan looks like a win-win for the bay. An entrepreneur is proposing to turn chicken litter -- a major pollution source -- into electricity that Maryland would use to meet state renewable energy mandates and to power government buildings.
Some see the plan creating new headaches. Farmers are fretting about what it might do to the fertilizer market, and environmentalists see it turning a water pollution problem into air pollution.
"It's another avoidance technique," said Scott Edwards, co-director of Food & Water Watch's justice project. "It's not clean energy. Anytime you're burning waste, to call that part of our renewable clean energy portfolio is a huge mistake."
Similar proposals have been thwarted in the past by backlash from communities near poultry operations and over concerns about the economic viability of such ventures. There's one active U.S. poultry litter-to-energy facility, a 55-megawatt plant in Minnesota built by Fibrowatt LLC a decade ago.
"It's been really slow to materialize. It's like the chicken and the egg," said Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist at the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a co-author of a January 2012 report on turning manure into energy. "The technology is not simple. Companies who thought because they could burn wood chips, [they] could burn chicken litter. Then the air issues came up, and it's not been done very much."
Just last week, a study in Virginia raised concerns about the health impacts of another concentrated poultry facility in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That study found that the proposed plant -- which has since been withdrawn by plant developer Fibrowatt -- would have increased emissions of fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and arsenic.
While the study is specific to the Shenandoah Valley, it offers a glimpse of the health issues linked to poultry-to-waste operations, said Benjamin Evans, a health policy analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the assessment.
"I think that our [health impact assessment] provides, from what I can gather, some of the first information of a third-party source" on the air effects of a litter-to-energy plant, Evans said.
In Maryland, the state announced plans in January to purchase electricity from a 10 MW plant operated by Green Planet Power Solutions. According to the company, the facility would reduce nitrogen being washed into the bay from chicken farms by 230,000 pounds a year. The California-based company is currently in negotiations on where to locate the plant but is targeting Caroline County.
Steven Carpenter, Green Planet's CEO, said in an interview that he "absolutely" has the same concerns about air quality but that the plant will "meet all the required standards before even beginning construction." The technology being used, a type of gasification that is cleaner than straight incineration, will create heat from the litter and then convert that heat into power.
But there is very little empirical data available on air emissions at litter-to-energy facilities and whether they would increase greenhouse gas emissions, experts say.
Emissions are "the No. 1 question from an environmental perspective," said Kristen Evan Hughes, executive director at Sustainable Chesapeake. "Are you trading water quality for air quality?"
The Virginia study attempted to quantify health impacts and touched on air emissions, but it was far from being a comprehensive look at the industry's potential effects.
Emissions will likely depend on the technology used and the terrain of the site, Virginia Commonwealth's Evans said. His study, for example, found that locating an incinerator in the northern Shenandoah Valley would result in the highest concentration of pollutants. It found that particulate matter could pose a greater risk than emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. All the emissions, the study found, would meet U.S. EPA standards.
The study also found that burning litter would result in an increased risk of arsenic in the air due to an arsenic-containing feed additive in poultry that was voluntarily removed from the market in 2011.
Gasification technology would minimize nitrogen air emissions because much of the nitrogen would be emitted as an inert gas, according to the January 2012 manure-to-energy report by the Bay Foundation; the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative assembly with officials from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the Maryland Technology Development Corp.; and Farm Pilot Project Coordination Inc.
In general, it would be best to locate a litter-to-energy facility in an area that is not "teetering on the brink of where health is being impacted," Evans said.
"I can certainly imagine a scenario where it would be a good fit for an area," Evans said. "It wouldn't appear to me to directly be a huge concern for areas that don't already have things to be concerned about."
Maryland environmental groups say, though, that their state should be looking at ways to reduce waste, not creating incentives to produce it.
The state has fashioned "an incredibly creative process" to manage nutrients "that seems to be looking at every possible solution instead of reducing them," said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter, which a few years ago vigorously opposed the addition of incineration technologies to the state's renewable portfolio standard.
Food & Water Watch, a national group that opposes industrial-scale agriculture in the bay watershed, said in a statement after the project's announcement that it would only perpetuate the area's water quality issues.
Nutrient management has long been a major problem in the sprawling Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Animal manure, which is commonly applied to fields as fertilizer, is the largest source of phosphorus runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and one of the main contributors to nitrogen runoff. Excessive nutrients in waterways spark algae growths that can spur the creation of "dead zones," or areas devoid of dissolved oxygen that aquatic life needs.
Maryland has a lot of chickens. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the state produced about 300 million broiler chickens in 2007 and about 550,000 tons of litter. Maryland is the top poultry producer in the bay watershed and the country's eighth-largest chicken producer.
In 2010, EPA put the region on a "pollution diet," requiring states in the watershed -- Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia -- to reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the bay annually by 60 million pounds and the amount of phosphorus by 4 million pounds.
A year later, Maryland put out the call for proposals for a litter-to-energy project as part of its Clean Bay Power program, an initiative of the state departments of General Services, Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment; the Maryland Energy Administration; and the University System of Maryland.
"Obtaining electricity through poultry manure or animal waste helps Maryland government to reach its goal of generating 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, all the while improving Bay water quality and supporting the agriculture industry," said General Services Secretary Alvin Collins in a January statement announcing the deal.
In a statement, state officials said the project would save Maryland up to $80 million in avoided energy costs over the life of the agreement. The project is also expected to produce potentially valuable byproducts, such as concentrated phosphorus ash that could be sold elsewhere across the country for fertilizer.
Poultry producers in the Delmarva Peninsula, who dispute claims from both environmental groups and EPA that their industry is a significant contributor to bay water quality issues, are also skeptical that such a project could work for the region, but for different reasons than the environmental groups. The economics need to be favorable for growers to buy into the plan, said Bill Satterfield, executive director at Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
Chicken litter as commodity
Litter is valuable for farmers, who spread it on their cropland or sell it: The price for the organic version is $25 or so a ton.
"Back 25 or 30 years ago, a lot of growers couldn't give their manure away. It was a waste product," Satterfield said. "But it now has a great deal of value. The chicken industry growing birds can make more money selling the manure."
Satterfield said he wasn't familiar with Green Power Planet Solutions' plan to acquire litter, but "if they're going to make a go of it, they're going to have to pay growers a good amount."
Fibrowatt, which was recently bought by Homeland Renewable Energy, last year shelved its proposed litter-to-electricity plant in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley after it became apparent that the economics would not work out and Dominion Virginia Power, which had shown interest in buying into the project, pulled out.
Fibrowatt had proposed to use approximately 450,000 tons of poultry litter for the project. Researchers from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who had been asked by the state to study the proposed project concluded that there simply wasn't enough litter to make the 30 MW project viable. The Virginia Tech team also found that the $4 to $5 a ton the company was initially offering to growers wasn't enough to persuade them to give up their litter, according to Jim Pease, a professor of agricultural economics there who worked on the study.
Green Planet CEO Carpenter said that the company would obtain litter from existing aggregators but that he wasn't sure yet how much litter the facility would require.
"At a very high level, if we put it in the wrong location in the chicken litter world, then we have to pay more to haul it to where we're at," Carpenter said.
He said the reception to the project during Green Planet's negotiations for a location has been so far positive.
"I would say [the region is] receptive with the same caveat that the technology works, with the same caveat that the air will be dealt with and all the other issues that would be under a normal approval process," Carpenter said. "They like the idea of bringing jobs to a region."
As Green Planet moves forward on the project, Hughes of Sustainable Chesapeake is in turn looking into manure-to-energy technology at the farm level. Farm-scale technologies are just starting to emerge, and the goal of the project is to procure some objective data on their performance, their emissions and whether they are a feasible alternative as a source of heat, Hughes said.
"The best possible case scenario for the industry," she said, "is to have multiple choices."
Satterfield of the Delmarva Poultry Industry said that his group has received "countless inquiries" over the years from companies wanting to do something with manure other than have farmers apply it on the land as fertilizer.
He said that growers aren't necessarily opposed to turning their manure into energy but that they have so far shown more interest in installing solar panels than in managing an on-farm energy system.
"It's easy to turn on the electric lights with a switch. It's easy to have the electricity flow in from the power company. The heat from the chicken houses is produced by propane. It's easy to have the propane delivered and to turn on the heater," he said. "So I don't know that a lot of growers want to mess with having an on-farm system."
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