Maryland Has A Plan To Turn Chicken Poop Into Energy

CREDIT: Schubbel

For decades, Maryland has seen its dream of cleaning up the polluted Chesapeake Bay buried under a mountain of chicken poop. Chicken manure — a waste-product of the state’s booming chicken industry — has long been used as fertilizer for Maryland’s farms, but it also contributes to nutrient runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake.

Now, a team of businesses — including the state’s largest industrial chicken producer — are suggesting that instead of spreading it on farm land, Maryland use chicken poop to power their buildings.

Last week, a New Hampshire-based developer, alongside chicken production giant Perdue, met with legislators in Maryland to propose building a $200 million energy plant on the state’s Eastern Shore. The plant would take Maryland’s copious amount of chicken manure and convert it into energy, which could be used to meet the state’s renewable energy mandate.

Bill Dennison, professor and vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, leads the annual development of the Chesapeake Bay report card and has seen a consistent problem with the bay’s Eastern Shore, where agriculture combines with extremely low-lying land to create a precarious situation for potential runoff.

“From all the other major tributaries … the water quality is improving,” Dennison told ThinkProgress. But along the Eastern Shore, water quality continues to degrade — due, in large part, to the area’s agricultural industry. “The two issues that we’ve got that we haven’t cracked,” Dennison said, “are chicken manure and excess fertilizer that makes its way into the groundwater.”

Maryland is one of the country’s top producers of chickens for meat consumption — in 2013, the state produced 305 million chickens, making it eighth in the nation for chicken production. Statewide, chicken production accounts for roughly 40 percent of total cash farm income. But the chicken business, while profitable, also produces an excess of waste — in 2008, Maryland produced 650 million pounds of chicken manure. The state’s Eastern Shore, which is home to Perdue’s headquarters, is an especially prodigious producer of broiler chickens — chickens are the largest sector of the Eastern Shore’s agricultural industry.

Chicken manure is especially high in phosphorus, an element that’s crucial to plant growth but which is taken up by plants in smaller quantities than nitrogen, another key element in fertilizer. When chicken manure is used as fertilizer, phosphorus often remains in the soil in higher concentrations than nitrogen. When it rains, an excess in phosphorus can end up in ground and storm water, eventually making its way to the Chesapeake, where it stimulates algae blooms that in turn create “dead zones” — areas low in dissolved oxygen where marine life can’t survive.

But for all its issues in contributing to nutrient runoff, manure might also be a solution to Maryland’s energy problems.

“Maryland has to import energy. We’re a net consumer of energy. We don’t have enough power generation in the state,” Dennison said. “We need energy. We need to deal with the excess chicken manure. [The power plant] makes a lot of sense.”

Unlike similar proposals for converting chicken manure into energy, the current proposal would not send the manure to an incinerator, but to an anaerobic digester, where the manure would be converted into methane gas. Environmental groups often voice concern about burning manure, which can release particulate matter into the air. With a digester, the only byproduct is a biogas, which is then burned in place of existing fossil fuels — like natural gas — in an electrical utility generator.

“I don’t think we’re trading off water quality for air quality,” Dennison said. “I think we’re creating a mechanism where we can achieve both.”

Still, some environmental groups have voiced concern that the plan fails to address the root of the problem, which is the sheer amount of waste produced by industrial chicken production in Maryland.

“We’ve spent 40 years in Maryland trying to come up with ways to handle Perdue’s waste problem without asking Perdue to do it themselves,” Scott Edwards, co-director of Food and Water Watch’s Food & Water Justice Project, told ThinkProgress. “They keep coming up with ways to not address the problem, which is the unsustainable nature of this industry.”

But others don’t think that the industrial agriculture system can be fixed on a timeline that’s in keeping with the area’s pollution reduction goals — the plant, they say, is a viable short-term solution to an immediate problem.

“This is a bridge technology that allows us to do something more positive with the waste we have, that also works with the system of industrial agriculture that we have currently,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which neither endorses nor opposes the project.

If allowed to go forward, the digester plant would be the largest of its kind in the United States — but its scale, as well as the support of Perdue, is part of what makes many so optimistic about its future. According to the Baltimore Sun, the plant would be built to handle up to 200,000 tons of chicken manure a year — the estimated amount of excess manure being spread over the Eastern Shore annually. And having Perdue on board supports chicken farmers, who are often left contending with heaps of chicken poop.

“Chicken producers produce the chicken but the farmers are left with the manure,” Dennison said. “To have them integrated into the solution makes a lot of sense.”