WASHINGTON – Plans to burn chicken manure to produce energy have pooped out for the time being.
Touted in the late 1990s as a way to help Maryland chicken growers deal with tightening regulations on waste management, the plans would have built or converted power plants so they could burn the Eastern Shore’s omnipresent “resource.”
But of the four companies that proposed such power plants, two have backed out and two are still in preliminary planning stages, stymied by expenses and regulations, to the disappointment of local officials.
“Obviously, the issue of having excess chicken manure on the Eastern Shore, where we grow so many chickens, has been an issue over the years,” said Steve Dodd, Dorchester County’s director of planning and zoning.
Now, the first poultry litter-fueled power plant in the United States will see its groundbreaking this spring not in Maryland but in Minnesota.
The Fibrowatt Group, a company that has operated three such plants in England for up to 10 years, expects to sell around 50 megawatts of electricity a year from the Minnesota plant. That is enough to power about 50,000 homes, said spokeswoman Anne S. Martinez.
The company is still looking into building more plants in other states, including Maryland, but decided to focus its American efforts on the Minnesota plant for now, she said.
The Maryland plant, FibroShore, is still in preliminary planning stages, said spokesman Carl Strickler. Fibrowatt is trying to determine how large the Maryland plant will be, how much power it will produce and sell, and where it will get the chicken litter, he said.
Some on the Eastern Shore are looking forward to the day when such plants are built here.
“What makes it so great is that it’s green power, because it’s wood waste and chicken litter,” said Delegate Rudolph C. Cane, D-Wicomico.
Fibrowatt’s Minnesota plant will use about 500,000 tons of turkey litter a year, nearly a quarter of the amount produced in the state, as well as some other waste such as alfalfa stems, Martinez said.
In Maryland, other companies have had little more success than Fibrowatt.
Allen Family Foods planned to retrofit its Hurlock processing plant to gasify chicken litter. The electricity created was to power Allen’s processor, and the excess would have been sold to a power company, said Diane Brown of the Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Assessment Division.
Allen and its partner, CHx Engineering — which would have owned, built, and operated the plant — received final approval from the state Public Service Commission on May 10, 2001, but CHx pulled out of the deal and the project was never begun.
If Allen is still interested in the project and finds a new partner, it would need to start the permit process over, Brown said.
Certain issues were left unresolved when Allen got permission for the plant. Hurlock residents worried about the routes that up to 10 trucks of litter a day would take to the plant and about how to cover the loads of manure.
They expressed “some concern over chicken poop bouncing out of the trucks,” said Blaine Keener, PSC chief engineer.
Another problem faced by all the plants is the expense of burning chicken manure to produce power.
Conectiv, a Delaware-based power company, considered retrofitting its Vienna plant to burn chicken waste in the late 1990s, but the idea proved too expensive and the company sold the plant to NRG Energy Inc. in 2001.
The waste, when burned, would not have produced enough energy to be worth the effort, said Conectiv spokesman Bill Yingling.
Because electricity produced from chicken litter is more expensive than electricity produced in other ways, government subsidies may be needed to make it feasible, said project backers.
In 2001, Ecowatt, an offshoot of venture capital company Chesapeake Ventures, announced that it planned to build a chicken-waste power plant on the Eastern Shore. But the project is still under development, and the company is waiting to see what Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration will do, said Chesapeake Ventures President Robert D’Antonio.
“We think it’s a doable project, we just have to see what the new regulations are going to be,” he said.
Fibrowatt is also waiting to see what will happen in the state.
“It’s a bad time because of the budget restraints that we have,” said Cane, the delegate, who supports the Fibrowatt project.
Martinez said that once the Minnesota plant is under construction, Fibrowatt will have more energy to spend on its potential plants in other states.
She said the company knows the technology well from its decade of operating experience in Britain, but developing plants in the United States required it to learn a whole new regulatory process.
“The permits have all been landmark permits because this will be the first . . . in the U.S. and the largest in the world,” Martinez said.