Sixteen years ago, Jack O’Connor’s government warned him that new regulations were coming to limit the amount of nitrogen he could spread on his farmland.
O’Connor, who lives in Ireland, didn’t fight the regulations. Instead, he used them as the basis for a business plan to turn manure into energy. Today, his company, BHSL, which he founded eight years ago, has built and is operating three manure-to-energy systems in Europe. The company recently won a contract for close to $1 million from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to build a demonstration of their system on a farm on the Eastern Shore. Many more farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula are interested in the technology. Environmental advocates, too, are watching it closely.
“Livestock intensification is a matter of fact,” said Declan O’Connor, who is Jack O’Connor’s brother and the CEO of BHSL. “What we need to do is make it more sustainable.” Throughout the watershed, livestock growers are raising cows, hogs and chickens that generate 44 million tons of manure each year.
On the Delmarva Peninsula, poultry manure is the primary issue. Much of the region’s farmland is saturated with phosphorus because farmers have used chicken manure as fertilizer for decades. If more manure is applied to saturated fields, the excess phosphorus and nitrogen it contains find their way to water where it fuels algae blooms. Developing ways to use the extra manure has become increasingly important.
Farmers here are no strangers to manure-to-energy techniques. With the help of researchers from Penn State University, several dairy farmers in the Keystone State have installed digesters that have turned their cow manure into a financial benefit. The solid byproducts from digestion work well as bedding and as a product for gardens, while the methane produced heats the farm and allows some farmers to sell electricity back to the grid. Some of these dairy farmers also profit from accepting food waste from places like Walmart that also goes into the digester.
But turning chicken manure into energy is difficult. If it were easier, state and federal officials say, the Chesapeake Bay watershed would have done it by now. Dairy manure is wet, and chicken manure is dry. Adding water to manure is costly, so chicken waste is a poor candidate for traditional digesting.
Instead, the O’Connor brothers turned to a process called fluidized bed technology. The bed is essentially a furnace in which poultry litter is burned. Poultry litter is a mix of manure and sawdust that serves as the bedding in a poultry house. Jets of compressed air break up litter, allowing for better combustion of the nitrogen-rich waste. The extracted energy replaces fossil fuels to heat the chicken houses, saving the farmer thousands of dollars a year.
The byproduct is a phosphorus-rich ash. For every 10 tons of manure that goes into the system, one ton of ash comes out. That ash is a “viable product,” Declan O’Connor said, with several different uses. It can be pelletized and added to fertilizer. Virginia Tech researchers have completed a two-year study indicating the ash can be a fertilizer for tomatoes.
One advantage of the system, advocates say, is that it’s an on-farm technology, as opposed to a power plant that pools manure from various sources. Like the dairy digesters, it provides farmers with a money-saving product — fuel — and a salable byproduct — phosphorus-rich ash, while also reducing their carbon footprint and the additional pollution they would add if they land-applied manure.
Bevin Buchheister, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, has long been enthusiastic about manure-to-energy options. But the Irish solution is particularly exciting, she said, because their conversion process reduces ammonia emissions.
“I do share the optimism,” she said. “They’re up and running. They have air emissions information and they have technology that works.”
Commission members recently visited Ireland to see the plants there. In addition, commission members have been to Gettysburg, PA, to tour Energy Works, which makes fuel from egg-laying chickens’ waste.
Maryland’s new agricultural secretary, Joe Bartenfelder, made the trip to Gettysburg even before Gov. Larry Hogan announced his appointment. When Declan O’Connor and his colleagues came to a poultry conference in Atlanta recently, they swung through Maryland to meet with Bartenfelder.
“I thought it was a great concept. It should be able to work,” Bartenfelder said. “I’m excited about a process that might be out there that’s going to help solve this problem, the phosphorus problem.”
The O’Connors’ company was born out of a time of great uncertainty for the United Kingdom’s poultry industry. In 1996, out of concern for its drinking water, the United Kingdom placed 8 percent of its land in “nitrate vulnerable zones.” In these areas, the government placed restrictions on when farmers could apply manure, where they could apply it, and how much they could apply. But in December 2000, European courts ruled that the U.K. needed to protect not just drinking water, but ground and surface water as well. The land in the nitrate vulnerable zones increased to 47 percent of the U.K.’s land. By 2002, nitrate-vulnerable zones were the law throughout Europe.
Suddenly, O’Connor and hundreds of other farmers could not apply manure from November until March.
It took years of experimenting and research in Ireland and Portugal to come up with the right technology, but even then, BHSL’s struggles were not over. Poultry litter was considered a waste, and the technology BHSL used was considered incineration. In Europe, waste incineration requires expensive monitoring. It would have eliminated a farm-based solution, said Andre Dight, BHSL’s poultry specialist.
After three years of working on the issue, BHSL prevailed upon European legislators to classify manure as a fuel instead of a waste. The company is now working with environmental officials in their own country, as well as abroad, to help spread the technology.
It’s a promising technology, and not just because of an excess of manure in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Globally, there is a looming phosphorus shortage, and a push toward renewable energy.
“You never even mention waste anymore,” Declan O’Connor said.