The Poultry Litter Landscape

Bioenergy from farm waste can help solve well-known runoff issues in the Chesapeake Bay
By Luke Geiver | May 23, 2012

The Chesapeake Bay region is undertaking the most aggressive nutrient reduction effort to date. According to a report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Technology Development Corp. and Farm Pilot Project Coordination Inc., states and local governments in the region mandate a combined annual reduction of 60 million pounds of nitrogen and 4 million pounds of phosphorus by 2025 from the six states associated with the watershed. That includes Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and New York, as well as the District of Columbia. So, something has to change for poultry and other agricultural outfits that produce high levels of nutrient-rich manure, adding to the region’s oversaturated soil and resulting water runoff issues.

According to the report, “Manure to Energy: Sustainable Solutions for the Chesapeake Bay Region,” three major areas hold the greatest concentration of livestock: the Lower Susquehanna River region in Pennsylvania features dairy, beef and chicken farms; the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and West Virginia has a group of chicken and turkey producers; and the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is dominated by chicken production.

The animal manure and poultry litter problems are exacerbated by the logistical complexity of transporting excess litter away from the region. Aside from the variance in nutrient levels from one load of litter to another, the cost of long-distance transport typically outweighs the benefit. But fortunately, the organizations linked to the Chesapeake Bay report think the problem is solvable, and for the biomass industry, that’s a good thing. “As long as the American consumer relies on a diet of milk, meat and eggs, there will be a steady supply of animal manure as feedstock for energy projects,” the report states.

Digesting the Possibilities

EcoCorp Inc., a Virginia-based renewable energy developer with a knack for anaerobic digestion (AD), is already working in the Eastern Shore to reduce the amount of excess poultry litter. The company signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with a Maryland correctional facility, allowing a 1 MW poultry litter and corn stover AD system to provide one-third of the facility’s power needs. “Nobody has opposed it up to this point,” says John Ingersoll, president of EcoCorp, adding that there is no indication anyone will.

EcoCorp’s AD process doesn’t destroy the nutrients, and the nitrogen is converted to ammonia, according to Ingersoll. Of the 800,000 tons of chicken litter he says is produced between the Bay and the Atlantic Ocean every year, his project is using roughly 1 percent. “That gives you an idea of the potential,” he says, adding that 100 digesters could be built to help process the chicken litter in that area.

Ingersoll’s AD system is prefabricated, allowing utilization wherever needed. And the system uses a dry fermentation process, which greatly reduces water requirements. The project at the correctional facility will be complete in early 2013, he says.

While AD could be the choice process for many farmers whose operations contribute to Chesapeake Bay pollution, it isn’t the only answer.

Heating Up

In Rockingham County, Va., Oren Heatwole is heating his poultry houses through combustion of poultry litter gathered on-site, thereby also improving the environment for his birds.

In Accomack County, Va., Farm Pilot Project Coordination Inc. is working to produce both heat and power from 2,200 tons of poultry litter per year sourced from 11 farms with a total of 1.8 million birds. The energy will be used on-site with the resulting ash from the gasifier sold as fertilizer for local vegetable crops, further reducing phosphorous runoff.

And in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, BioEnergy Planet is partnering with Virginia Tech on a pyrolysis process that converts poultry litter to bio-oil and biochar. The partnership is developing a business model that allows technology providers to generate income from the energy produced, as well as the resulting biochar.

But Perdue Agribusiness and Fibrowatt LLC have a project that might provide the best glimpse into the real power of poultry litter. In response to a Maryland Clean Bay Power request for proposals (RFP) by Gov. Martin O’Malley last year, the two companies submitted a project proposal that would reduce runoff, help the state meet those lofty nutrient reduction goals, and generate 10 MW through gasification at a facility in Salisbury, Md. The project would also create 70,000 pounds of steam per hour to be used at Perdue’s adjacent soybean processing facility.

As of 2001, Perdue’s business arm, AgriRecycle, has shipped 12 million pounds of nitrogen and 7.5 million pounds of phosphorus out of the region, and perhaps more important, has become the state’s largest buyer of poultry litter. Jim Potter, president and chief operating officer of Fibrowatt’s parent, Homeland Renewable Energy Inc., says the prospect of poultry litter used with an AD application is good, but nothing beats combustion. “The combustion of poultry litter provides far superior value versus any other renewable energy technology,” he says. For several years, Potter’s team has successfully run the world’s largest poultry litter-to-power combustion facility, producing 55 MW in Benson, Minn.

But Potter’s company also owns and operates Homeland Biogas Energy LLC, a company that develops large-scale biogas facilities. “AD systems are geared more toward wetter materials such as dairy and swine (manure) with high volatile organic solids,” he says, adding that the process doesn’t meet the needs of the Eastern Shore states to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from the litter.

Perdue and Fibrowatt’s Maryland project proposal doesn’t, however, hinge on the poultry litter or even the process technology. It’s more about the typical project dynamics seen in other biomass projects. “The state is the vehicle in which a project creates a predictable cash flow or the mechanism to secure non-recourse project finance debt,” Potter says.

Maryland has agreed to sign a 15- or 20-year power purchase agreement with the project it chooses from the Clean Bay Power RFP. Building a first-of-its-kind facility to learn about the financial project dynamics, and then applying the lessons learned to reduce cost and improve efficiency on future projects is an applicable strategy for Eastern Shore poultry litter projects, according to Potter. Thus, he believes Fibrowatt and Perdue will make a perfect fit for the region, in part because of Fibrowatt’s global experience. “We know the issues associated with biosecurity, with odor control, with combustion, dealing with the high-ash, high-alkaline fuel,” Potter says.

But the Chesapeake Bay report, in combination with other activity in the poultry litter arena, shows the industry can support multiple projects. “Our region has the potential to verify multiple technologies,” says Dion Banks, director of governmental affairs for Cambridge International, the parent company to Cambridge Environmental Technologies, formed in 2007 to develop biomass gasifers that can utilize poultry litter.

Banks has already testified before the Maryland State Senate regarding a bill that would qualify biomass thermal energy systems for renewable energy credits. And Banks and his team have also hosted a roundtable discussion with roughly 30 industry representatives and members of the USDA on the potential of using poultry litter to prevent runoff from the Eastern Shore. 

But poultry litter-to-power development isn’t only reserved for those on the Eastern Shore. In Quebec, Biofour Inc. is using a government grant to validate a biomass boiler specifically designed to run on agricultural residues and, of course, poultry litter. A boiler already installed at a poultry litter facility features a two-chambered system that allows for complete combustion, using both the feedstock and the resulting gases (pumped into the second chamber) for combustion.

While some systems are still under development, poultry litter doesn’t have to wait, as Potter has proven with his combustion and AD systems. And Ingersoll and his team are already looking at projects that would mimic the prison’s AD setup. Banks believes that Maryland could be on the cutting edge of technology and project development in terms of poultry litter use and, as the report points out, the entire region has ample opportunity.

Whether it is optimism or insight, Banks and the others just might have it right about poultry litter. “The development of poultry litter-based renewables is an opportunity for the world,” he says.

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4944
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