The Energy Challenge:
From Turkey Waste, a New Fuel
and a New Fight
SUSAN SAULNY / New York Times 6jun2007
Is this an environmentally sustainable service?
In the article, J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy reminds us of the following when answering that question:
And without much effort, one can easily see along the lifecycle of the turkey litter being burned — from the growing of the plant matter that feeds the turkeys; the pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and growth hormones; to the burning — that there nothing closely resembling sustainability. That should also include the production of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen sulfide.
The answer is that this type of energy production is definitely not sustainable. It is also definitely not a desirable neighbor unless one is a turkey farmer.
For the rest of us, this is just one more pile of shit.
But wait, there's more!
A similar technology changes the turkey guts into oil. It too had a start in Philadelphia. It actually claims to be able to turn anything into oil! Alchemists used to claim they could turn lead into gold. It amounts to about the same thing — P.T. Barnum stuff just waiting for investors. The state money insures this rotten technology lives off of the public.
BENSON, Minn. — For anyone curious about what thousands of tons of turkey litter looks like, piled high into an indoor olfactory-assaulting mountain of manure, this old railroad stop on the extreme edge of alternative energy production is the place to be.
Thanks to the abundance of local droppings, Benson is home to a new $200 million power plant that burns turkey litter to produce electricity. For the last few weeks now, since before generating operations began in mid-May, turkey waste has poured in from nearby farms by the truckload, filling a fuel hall several stories high.
The power plant is a novelty on the prairie, the first in the country to burn animal litter (manure mixed with farm-animal bedding like wood chips). And it sits at the intersection of two national obsessions: an appetite for lean meat and a demand for alternative fuels.
But it has also put Benson, a town of 3,376 some three hours west of Minneapolis, on the map in another way: as a target of environmental advocates who question the earth-friendliness of the operation.
The critics say turkey litter, of all farm animals’ manure, is the most valuable just as it is, useful as a rich, organic fertilizer at a time when demand is growing for all things organic. There is a Web site devoted to detailing the alleged environmental wrongs at the power plant, which detractors consider just another pollutant-spewing, old-technology incinerator dressed up in green clothing.
A related issue is that the electricity is expensive, as called for in a utility contract that led to the plant’s construction, and that it requires a lot of input for a rather small output. Marty Coyne of Platts Emissions Daily, a newsletter that analyzes issues related to the energy markets, said it would take 10 waste-burning plants the size of the one here to equal the energy generated by one medium-size coal-fired plant.
David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group with offices in Minneapolis and Washington, said: “As a matter of public policy, it stinks. The problem is that it’s using a resource in an inefficient way, and required huge subsidies to create a more inferior product than what was already being sold on the market.”
All the unwanted attention shows, once again, how the landscape of renewable energy production is fraught with potential land mines, even in a case that seems small-scale and straightforward. What could be so offensive about burning turkey poop?
“This is the only advancement in manure utilization since the manure spreader — that’s 100-year-old technology,” said Greg Langmo, a third-generation turkey farmer who lobbied for the plant, where he now works as a field manager.
Minnesota produces more turkeys than any other state, some 44.5 million birds in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available. It follows that the turkeys leave behind a lot of waste in their pens, where most are confined to gobble and peck until they are robust enough for slaughter. The Benson plant, then, has been of considerable help for farmers with a disposal problem.
The plant was built by Fibrowatt, a Philadelphia-based company, with financial incentives from the State of Minnesota. And, without precedent in the United States, it is largely a test case, watched carefully because Fibrowatt has plans to expand its operation to other big poultry states.
Officials at the company did not expect a perfectly smooth start but are surprised by the level of debate over the plant.
“We are completely puzzled by why people would make such a major effort to denigrate what we’re doing,” said Rupert J. Fraser, the chief executive, whose father pioneered manure-burning technology decades ago in Britain. Fibrowatt ran three such plants there before moving to Philadelphia to enter the American market.
“We’re seeking to provide an environmentally sustainable service to the industry which produces renewable energy,” Mr. Fraser said. “We’re not claiming to be the only solution, but we think we are environmentally responsible and are doing everything to the highest possible standard.”
Fibrowatt is advancing an important goal, Mr. Fraser said: the reduction of dependence on fossil fuels and their attendant pollutants.
But biomass burning, as it is called, produces its own pollutants. According to information in one of its federal air permits, the plant is a major source of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen sulfide. It was granted permission to operate because of the way the emissions are controlled and cleaned before being released into the air — “All projected impacts were well below Minnesota’s health risk values,” the permit says — but officials will continue monitoring it.
“We shouldn’t just assume that because something is called an energy source, it’s a good one,” said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy, an advocacy group in St. Paul. “You have to evaluate: where did this waste product come from? You have to look at the whole life cycle, how the plants were grown, what the turkey was fed. You want to be careful about what you’re putting into the air and water.”
Pet owners who see newfound possibilities for their household litter boxes should know that it will take about 500,000 tons of turkey waste to produce enough electricity for a few rural counties for a year. And not all litter burns well, although turkeys’ does, at least relatively so.
Unlike cow or hog manure, which is wet, turkey litter is mostly dry. That aids combustion. So does the fact that it is mixed with turkey-bedding materials like sunflower hulls, wood chips and alfalfa stems.
At the plant here, a boiler produces high-pressure steam that drives a 55-megawatt generator. Throughout operations, a negative air pressure system controls odors from becoming a nuisance outside the facility.
Part of what drew Fibrowatt to Minnesota, Mr. Fraser said, was a legislative mandate, back in the early 1990s, that the primary utility in the area, Xcel Energy, build a wind or biomass generating plant, or contract for electricity from one, as a way of reducing Minnesota’s dependence on traditional energy.
To meet the requirement, said Karen Hyde, Xcel’s managing director of resource planning and acquisition, the company entered into a 21-year agreement with Fibrowatt to buy all of the waste-burning plant’s power at a rate that was, at the time, twice the price of the electricity generated by plants fired by fossil fuels.
Because the price of fossil fuel has gone up, Miss Hyde said, the contract is more cost-effective today: the waste-burning electricity is now 30 percent more expensive than power from conventional plants.
“Some people call it a subsidy — that’s fine,” said Mr. Fraser, Fibrowatt’s chief executive, who prefers to look at it as “an incentive for change.”
“Any way you look at it,” he said, “you’re not going to get a shift from fossil-fuel energy to renewable energy without an equivalent change in the financial structure of energy policy.”
Back on his turkey farm, Mr. Langmo let the gritty litter from some of his 49,000 birds fall through his fingers. In one year, his farms will produce 8,000 tons of manure, and the power plant is buying manure from farmers for $3 to $7 a ton, depending on the quality.
“Is it green enough?” Mr. Langmo said of the operation. “I’m in no position to judge that.”
But he added: “It just feels right. And I think the vast majority of Americans would look and say, ‘I think it makes sense.” ”