ANNAPOLIS – Tighter regulations and mounting pressure to meet state environmental deadlines could convince Maryland’s poultry industry to re-consider alternative uses for chicken manure, heating up the debate over building a poultry litter to fuel plant on the Eastern Shore.
Such a plant would be beneficial for energy production, but might have a negative impact on Eastern Shore crop farmers who depend on chicken manure as fertilizer.
Last week, the Maryland Department of the Environment tightened regulations on the open storage of chicken manure in an effort to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Environmentalists have long been concerned about the hazardous effects run-off from manure has on the bay.
Farmers argue they have been unfairly blamed for pollution in the bay and believe increased development has had a larger impact. Fertilizer from chicken manure is essential to their survival, they argue.
The new regulations on the storage, handling and use of poultry waste are part of an effort to meet pollution reduction goals by 2010.
“The overriding concern is what to do with the excess chicken manure in Maryland,” said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. “Until we get the power plant up and running in Maryland, the regulations will be a band-aid.”
Initial discussions among government leaders and energy company executives to build a plant have already taken place.
Fibrowatt, LLC, a company which builds and operates electrical power plants fueled by poultry litter and other biomass, identified an opportunity on the Eastern Shore as early as 2000.
“We have been in discussions with the poultry industry,” said Terry Walmsley, vice president of environmental and public affairs for Fibrowatt. “When a need is acknowledged by the poultry industry, then we move to the next step. The opportunity is ripe.”
Fibrowatt built the nation’s first poultry litter to fuel plant in Benson, Minn., in 2007. The Benson plant, Fibrominn, burns 500,000 tons of poultry litter along with other biomass to produce enough electricity to service approximately 40,000 homes.
Gansler is hoping to have an agreement in principle within a year for a large scale plant. He lobbied to get chicken litter moved to a Tier 1 renewable energy source – along with solar, wind and others – making it more of an incentive for power companies to purchase it.
Power companies will have to obtain 20 percent of their energy from Tier 1 sources by 2022.
The plan would be to purchase excess manure from farmers and burn it to produce electricity. Proponents argue there would be more income for farmers, less manure finding its way into the bay and a new source of fuel to produce electricity.
But many in the poultry industry claim there isn’t enough manure to go around. Commercial fertilizer prices have soared, partially due to the rising cost of crude oil. As a result, many area crop farmers use chicken manure as a cheaper alternative.
“Around here, if you’ve got extra manure, somebody wants to buy it to spread on their field,” said Jeanne Shockley, whose Snow Hill farm can produce 600,000 chickens per year. “We pretty much use it up on the farmland that we till. We would be out of farming if we could not spread manure.”
Chicken production estimates on the Delmarva Peninsula hover at around 566 million birds annually. Approximately 728,000 tons of chicken manure is produced, according to figures from the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
“Just because it is produced by the bird, doesn’t mean it’s available,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc, a non-profit trade association.
Many in the industry are reluctant to talk about the actual figures.
“Nobody can get their hands on the numbers,” said Tom Ferguson at Perdue Agri Recycle, a company that transforms raw manure into a drier, pelletized form. Perdue Agri Recycle produces 50,000 tons of finished product each year, 70 percent of which is shipped to Arizona, Florida, Texas, Chile and South Korea.
Gansler said the power companies would have no reason to come here if there wasn’t enough manure.
“They’re all pooping every day,” Gansler said. “With that many birds, there is more than enough to go around.”