Poultry litter - Byproduct Eyed for Energy Use
MELFA -- Nearly $1 million will come to the Eastern Shore of Virginia for a pilot project that will demonstrate conversion of chicken manure into electricity on a Melfa farm.
The project, based at Davis Lovell's 11-house broiler operation, will research and demonstrate the potential to use tons of poultry litter produced on Delmarva farms as an alternative energy source to generate electricity while reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay from nutrients in chicken manure, which traditionally has been spread on fields as fertilizer.
"The overall idea is, you've got this source of chicken litter -- what could it be used for? One idea was to combust it and use it to generate electricity," said P. G. Ross, chairman of the Eastern Shore Resource Conservation and Development Council, the grant recipient.
"This project is very positive for Eastern Shore agriculture. It has the potential to expand economic opportunities for existing poultry growers and make poultry growing more attractive for farmers considering another enterprise," said Butch Nottingham, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services marketing specialist and a member of the RC&D council.
Additionally, the project will explore the potential to use the phosphorus-rich byproduct of the process as a fertilizer source that could be readily transported outside the Bay watershed or used on vegetable crops here -- unlike raw manure, which regulations prohibit using on vegetables.
Its use could reduce the amount of higher-priced inorganic fertilizer farmers need to import into the region.
Virginia's Eastern Shore tomato farmers alone import over 450 tons of inorganic triple superphosphate to fertilize some 6,000 acres of tomatoes valued at $100 million a year, according to information in the grant proposal.
Funding for the litter-to-electricity project includes a $421,650 Conservation Innovation Grant awarded to the RC&D Council by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The grant is one of eight the USDA awarded this year for innovative conservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Another $210,000 will come from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, along with $301,000 in equipment and other contributions from Farm Pilot Project Coordination Inc., a Tampa, Fla.,-based non-profit that oversees administration of projects to show the economic viability of technologies that reduce the nutrient content of manure from commercial animal farming operations. The company has managed 45 similar projects around the country.
Additional partners are Virginia Tech, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Accomack County and Northampton County Farm Bureaus and the Association of Virginia Potato and Vegetable Growers.
"It opens the door for other users to be able to eliminate the possibility of chicken manure and litter polluting waterways on both the bayside and the seaside. It will take that part of the problem out of the equation, hopefully," said Edwin Long, past chairman of the RC&D council. "It's a big opportunity."
Lovell, whose poultry operation is one of the region's largest, said his goal is for his farm to be "environmentally neutral."
He explained his interest in the project, saying Delmarva farmers face more and more governmental oversight when it comes to disposal of poultry litter.
"Due to tightening regulations -- and the likelihood of ever-increasing regulations -- I think it's prudent to look for other ways to get rid of the product."
While the pilot's goal is to produce electricity for farm use, Long sees potential for future commercial applications.
"There could be a new business starting up from this project. This is just one step," he said.
Construction to begin
Construction will begin next spring on Lovell's farm of a system including a gasifier and generator capable of converting 2,200 tons per year of poultry litter into energy to power farm operations.
That means 2,200 fewer tons potentially contri-buting excess nutrients in the bay watershed, as well as an estimated 438 megawatts of electricity to meet on-farm needs.
Data will be collected throughout the three-year project on the system's performance and operational costs, as well as evaluation of the farm's waste stream nutrients and other factors.
A major emphasis of the pilot is education -- at least five field days are planned beginning in October 2012 targeted to 800 poultry growers in the region. There also will be workshop and conference presentations and other outreach efforts, including a video documenting the project.
The broiler chicken industry is one of Accomack County's largest farm sectors, generating sales of nearly $90 million a year. The county has 250 to 300 chicken houses producing more than 40 million broilers per year -- and also some 50,000 tons of litter, according to the grant proposal.
Many fields in the county show a buildup of phosphorus from years of manure application -- about 30 percent show "very high" concentrations, according to the proposal. That phosphorus could end up in the bay, so finding alternative uses for manure is a priority.
At the same time, about 500,000 gallons of propane and 13 million kilowatts of electricity are consumed by the county's poultry operations -- energy needs that in the future could be met at least partly through using manure to generate heat and electricity.
RC&D submitted the grant application to the USDA in March, but for a time it appeared doubtful whether there would be anyone to accept the award if it was made, after Congress passed an appropriations bill in April that eliminated funding for RC&D councils nation-wide.
The program had received nearly $51 million in federal funding every year since 2003 to support 375 councils around the United States.
While the councils themselves are self-sustaining nonprofit organizations with volunteer members, the federal money paid for a full-time coordinator and office space in the USDA Service Center, both of which the local council lost after the cuts.
In a letter to fellow council members after the cuts were announced, Long called former coordinator Jane Corson-Lassiter "an exemplary employee" and said she would be "sorely missed."
"It was like cutting our throat when they did that," Long said recently.
Corson-Lassiter was reassigned to another position in the NRCS Accomac office.
But Ross said the Eastern Shore council is fortunate to have four local sponsors -- Accomack and Northampton counties, the Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation District and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. Their support allowed the council to go on, while many other councils' continued existence remains doubtful.
"It was pretty obvious we were vibrant and active enough to continue," he said, adding, "We have always pursued grant funding to support our mission and we think we can still do that -- just without that federal support."
The council recently hired a part-time projects director, Sara Reiter.
Recent projects in which the Eastern Shore RC&D played a role include restoration of the Onancock watershed, development of a healing garden at the Onley Community Health Center, a project that examined reducing ammonia emissions in chicken houses, development of the Onancock Creek Water Trail, and a living shoreline project at Camp Occohannock for which the council is trying to secure funding.