Daily News Record: Too Little of Litter?

Fibrowatt’s Poultry Waste Energy Project On Hold

Posted: August 22, 2012


HARRISONBURG — Fibrowatt LLC, a company that for at least two years has been looking into building a poultry litter-to-energy plant in the central Valley, says it’s backing out of those plans for now.

State officials decided to stop pursuing a feasibility study in early June after finding that the Valley produces much less poultry litter than first thought, rendering the plant less feasible.

A report paid for by the state and led by Jim Pease, an agriculture professor at Virginia Tech, estimated that Augusta, Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties produce about 345,000 tons of poultry litter each year.

Originally, Fibrowatt believed the area produced closer to 500,000 tons, said Fibrowatt President Jim Potter.

“Unless the state’s …  plan changes as relates to the development of a poultry litter project, then we have to put our efforts on hold,” Potter said.

The state’s advisory group for the project disbanded in part because it didn’t want to overlap with other alternative-energy efforts, according to Rick Weeks, chief deputy of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

After receiving word from the first of six elements of the study — the report out of Tech — state officials shut down the study, prompting Fibrowatt to back out of the Valley.

In 2010, Fibrowatt, based in Langhorne, Pa., approached Page County officials about building a plant there. But the company decided against Page as a location after encountering heavy opposition from residents concerned the plant would lead to pollution and bring about unwanted changes to the county’s rural landscape.

The company never announced a specific target site for the facility.

Fibrowatt, which operates the only poultry litter-to-energy plant in the nation in Benson, Minn., planned to use half the energy produced at the proposed Valley plant to fuel the facility, which would generate 40 to 55 megawatts of electricity each year.

But demand for litter as a fertilizer in the central Valley exceeds the current supply, according to the Virginia Tech study.

Farmers would have to spend more than $13 million collectively to replace the litter needed for fertilizer that would be lost to the plant’s fuel needs, the study found.

Also, Fibrowatt would have to haul in additional litter from outside sources, increasing truck traffic in the Valley, the study concluded.

“We still continue to believe that combustion of poultry litter is the best solution to assisting the state in managing [its] compliance with [its] watershed implementation plan,” said Potter, referring to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandates for Virginia to reduce the amount of pollution making its way into  the Chesapeake Bay.

The state considered the project because of the possibility it would significantly diminish the amount of litter used as fertilizer, which would reduce nutrient pollution in the bay watershed from excessive nitrogen runoff.

The EPA wants the state to dispose of 75,000 tons of litter annually that normally would be applied as fertilizer.

“Just from what I’ve seen, probably the smaller-scale [plants] might make more sense; an individual farmer or group of farmers that might generate electricity for their own needs,” said Weeks, noting that relatively low electric rates in the state cause a problem for the Fibrowatt-sized plant.

Utility companies that would be potential customers of the plant would have no incentive to buy from it. Unlike Minnesota, Virginia does not mandate that such companies purchase nontraditionally produced energy.

“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm on the part of utilities to purchase this electricity,” said Tech’s Pease.

Fibrowatt is in the process of constructing a plant in North Carolina and one along the Eastern Shore in Maryland.

As for Virginia, the company is working with a dairy farm on a “large anaerobic digester project,” which would turn cow manure into energy. Potter wouldn’t comment on the farm’s location.

Weeks, Pease and Eric Paulson, with the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, said they were unaware of the dairy farm proposal.