The Chesapeake Bay's manure-to-energy movement just got a boost from Maryland's government, which is seeking to have the state's first electricity-generating plant operating in four years.
The state is seeking companies to build a 10-megawatt facility that will turn animal waste into power. Dubbed Clean Bay Power, the initiative would double the amount of renewable energy purchased by the state, bringing it to about 30 percent. The winning bid will be announced in early 2012, and the plant would be operational by the end of 2015.
Maryland's announcement comes on the heels of great interest in converting manure to energy throughout the Bay watershed. Maryland's Eastern Shore and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley produce large quantities of chicken manure, while Lancaster County in Pennsylvania generates dairy manure. In all three areas, soils are saturated with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the application of animal waste. The excess manure problem has vexed cleanup groups and scientists for more than a decade. State officials have tried various approaches to the problem, including transporting it to other areas and trying to manage how much farmers apply.
Environmental groups and businesses alike are trying to find beneficial uses for excess manure. Turning it into power solves two problems: It reduces the amount of waste applied on the land that may run into the rivers, and it reduces the nation's dependence on foreign oil as a fuel source.
In September, the Chesapeake Bay Commission sponsored a Manure-to-Energy Summit to examine different techniques for turning waste into energy. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is working with the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network to learn more about the best technologies for converting manure into energy.
Some environmental groups are not in favor of efforts to convert manure into energy. They're worried about air pollution from the smokestacks when it is burned, and some also believe that new markets for manure support agriculture as we know it rather than reforming it into a truly sustainable system. There is also a worry that arsenic in the feed would be released into the atmosphere when the manure is burned, although the manufacturer of the arsenic additive said it would voluntarily stop putting it in the feed. (Arsenic is added to prevent an intestinal disease in the birds and help them gain weight. ) Some worry about environmental justice issues â€” one location under discussion for the Delmarva plant would be near a prison.
"We're happy to see the industry looking for alternatives to dumping it out on the land," said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. "But there's a rush to this, and I don't think anybody has truly looked into the issues involved in burning it."
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said that manure-to-energy systems, if done right, can solve major water-quality issues. The commission, which has been looking at biofuels over the last several years, sponsored the summit and is encouraging the discussion of different technologies.
"Lumping all manure-to-energy together would be like saying all fruit is equal. It's all really very different depending on which technology we're talking about," she said.
A few farms in Pennsylvania are using anaerobic digestors, which convert carbon into methane and use that to fuel generators. Another method, gasification, heats the manure, turns it into a gas and uses the gas to fuel a generator. Combustion methods burn the manure and turn it into energy.
Jim Potter, president of Fibrowatt, a Pennsylvania-based company that has a 55-megawatt manure-to-energy plant in Minnesota, said his company would respond to Maryland's RFP. Fibrowatt's turkey-litter plant in Minnesota is the company's fourth such operation, and it is seeking to put one on Maryland's Eastern Shore that would generate 40-55 megawatts, taking in 400,000 to 450,000 tons of poultry litter a year. That represents about half of the manure generated on the Shore.
"We will proceed with a plan to meet the state's goals, but more resources could be developed in the state," Potter said.
Potter will be meeting with various environmentalists, including Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Beth McGee, to gain support for his initiative.
McGee, the foundation's senior water quality scientist, said she has some concerns about the economics of manure-to-energy plants. She wants to make sure they can function when initial subsidies go away. But she thinks it's an area worth examining.
"We're not going to change agriculture overnight," she said. "As long as we have this problem, let's get some solutions on the table."