Maryland was supposed to be deep into the planning stages for a manure-to-energy plant by now, a plant that was a key component in the state’s strategy to reduce pollution from poultry manure. 

The state signed a contract in October 2013 with Maryland Bio Energy, a subsidiary of California-based Green Planet Power Solutions, to construct a power plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The plant was to turn 175,000 tons of poultry manure — about 75 percent of Maryland’s Eastern Shore’s excess manure — into electricity. The state and the University of Maryland signed on as customers. A federal subsidy was in place. The plant was to be built in the fall of 2015 and to generate energy by 2016.

Its construction would have given poultry growers a safe place to take manure they could not use as fertilizer because of new rules designed to reduce pollution from phosphorus. Many of the Eastern Shore’s fields are saturated with phosphorus, and poultry manure is phosphorus-rich.

Instead, the state’s manure-to-energy plan appears stalled. Neither Green Planet Power Solutions nor Maryland Bio Energy have applied for the necessary air permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment, according to officials there. That permit review alone would likely take 11 months — the amount of time that the MDE estimates when public concern mounts in a public review process.

Several environmental groups, including the Assateague Coastkeeper and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, oppose various aspects of the proposed plant. They are concerned about high ammonia emissions and health consequences.

The company had discussed locating the plant in both Salisbury and Federalsburg, but those options fell through. Officials familiar with the project said the company is now looking at a site of a once-proposed biodiesel facility in Somerset County, near Pocomoke City. 

Several local environmentalists are concerned about that site because it’s close to an African-American neighborhood. There is a growing concern in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — and everywhere else — that minority and lower-income communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of industrial processes, whether they are massive chicken operations or incinerators. Somerset County planning director Gary Pusey said the company would need a special exception to operate a manure-to-energy plant there. That application process would take at least six months, he said, and could take longer with public opposition.

“They have not made any contact with our office,” he said. “They have not applied for anything.”

Maryland’s Department of General Services entered into the contract with Maryland Bio Energy even though Green Planet Power Solutions had never built a manure-to-energy plant — and still hasn’t. The company submitted the lowest bid, agreeing to provide power for about 8 cents per kilowatt hour. The project would cost $75 million, with a U.S. Department of Energy grant funding about 30 percent. The state’s funding for the project, about $50 million, comes from Exelon;  Former Gov. Martin O’Malley persuaded Exelon to finance the plant as part of his conditions for approving the merger of Exelon with Constellation, the parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric. It was part of a $1 billion settlement.

The Department of General Services is the state’s real-estate arm, managing facilities, buildings and contracts. It was supposed to execute the contract in consultation with other knowledgeable managers within the state’s agriculture and energy departments. But former Maryland Department of Agriculture secretary Buddy Hance said he had little to do with the project. Maryland Energy Administration officials said they were not involved, either, though the MEA’s former director, Abigail Hopper, sat in on many project meetings. Hopper has since moved to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. She did not return calls seeking comment.

Green Planet Power Solutions’ website lists eight other waste-to-energy projects, including three that focus on tires. None have been built yet.

Steve Carpenter, the Maryland Bio Energy CEO who signed the contract, is a California real estate broker and developer. He did not return a call seeking an update on the company’s plans. The company also did not respond to an e-mail asking for an interview.

At the time the state awarded the contract, the company’s competitors expressed concern to state officials that choosing an untested company would compromise the project. After it won, Green Planet reached out to some of its competitors. The Bay Journal contracted several, all of whom said they declined to work with the company.

“They wasted three years where a project could have been constructed and could have actually had a very beneficial impact to the Bay,” said Jim Potter, the president of Homeland Renewable Energy, the parent company of Fibrowatt, which had put in a joint bid with Perdue for the project. Fibrowatt runs a manure-to-energy plant in Minnesota and talked with Maryland officials about a similar plant here.

“The state made the wrong decision, but it was so grossly wrong,” he said.

Potter is now president of AgEnergy USA, a company with several manure-to-energy projects around the country, including the largest anaerobic digester in the world, located outside of Denver, CO. AgEnergy USA bought many of Fibrowatt’s assets. Potter estimated that, with the federal subsidy at the time of the bid, he could have generated the energy for about 12 cents per kilowatt. Potter said he told Green Planet Power that he was not interested in partnering with them.

Potter and Fibrowatt also lost out in a similar fashion on a proposal to build a waste-to-energy plant in North Carolina; that state also went with the lowest bid, and several years later, the plant is not yet built.

For a time, Green Planet Power also tried to work with Perdue. Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said it is not working with Green Planet Power now.

Patrick Thompson’s company, Energy Works, runs a manure-to-energy plant in Gettysburg that uses the waste from egg-laying chickens. Thompson decided not to bid on the Maryland project. He did not think that the state gave companies enough time to put in a well-considered bid, and he prefers to work at a smaller scale and with a nutrient credit trading system in place.

Green Planet also approached him about a partnership. He declined to get involved with them, he said.

“I don’t think their proposal read badly. But they relied on stitching together individuals that were not part of a team, that didn’t start out as part of a team. And some of the key people were lost,” Thompson said. “How they come up with the low price that they did originally is beyond me.”

Bevin Buchheister, Maryland’s director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, has been working on manure-to-energy issues for several years. She and commission director Ann Swanson frequently meet with CEOs of waste-to-energy companies interested in relocating to the Bay watershed. The two asked for progress reports on the Green Planet project — the company was supposed to file them every 30 days — but didn’t receive them. 

“Did they understand poultry?” Buchheister asked. “Not as much as I would have liked them to.”

What happens next is unclear. The new Department of General Services secretary, Gail Bassette, was just confirmed Feb. 14 and is still getting up to speed on this project, a spokeswoman said. According to the contract, the state can terminate it if Maryland Bio Energy is more than six months late for its delivery date. It is not clear whether the state has yet provided any funds to Green Planet Power or Maryland Bio Energy.

If the state cuts ties with Maryland Bio Energy and Green Planet Power Solutions, several companies are interested in picking up where they left off.

“We’ve tried to let everyone know that we are here,” Thompson said, “and that we would like to be part of the solution.”