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Grant to help farmers turn waste to energy

COLLEGE PARK — Maryland chicken farms produce a substantial amount of phosphorous-rich chicken manure, which contributes to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. One solution to the problem: Turn the poop into power.

A new grant program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will bring $850,000 to Eastern Shore chicken farmers to install technologically advanced systems to convert waste into green energy.

“We’re trying to create a network of people who have experience [with] these technologies to provide assistance to farmers,” said Amanda Bassow, director of the Chesapeake Program at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is administering the USDA grant.

Disposal of chicken farm waste is a pressing issue in the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay where, according the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 26 percent of the phosphorus load entering the bay comes from animal waste.

The phosphorus-rich runoff from farms contributes to low-oxygen areas of the bay called dead-zones, which are harmful to aquatic life.

There are several ways farmers can convert manure to energy that can be used to power the farm or sold back to the electrical grid.

Combustion systems burn the manure, which produces steam to power a turbine that turns a generator to produce electricity.

Gasification systems heat the manure at temperatures up to 1,560 degrees in a low-oxygen system to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

And anaerobic digestion systems use microbes to break down the manure in an oxygen-free system to produce methane.

Gasification and combustion systems are the only viable option for Maryland chicken farmers because chicken manure is too dry to be used in anaerobic digestion systems.

“Typically [anaerobic digestion systems] are associated with dairy operations, which are in decline in Maryland,” said Mark Dubin, agricultural technical coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Alternative energy experts say gasification and combustion systems are most likely to be adopted on the Eastern Shore.

“We think it has great promise,” Chesapeake Bay Commission Director Bevin Buchheister said. “We feel that there are already viable technologies on the ground.”

But the high cost of installing waste-to-energy systems and the steep learning curve for farmers to learn the new technologies could prevent widespread adoption.

“At this point it has been difficult,” Dubin said.

It’s unclear how much it will cost to install combustion or gasification systems on Maryland chicken farms under the grant, officials said, because it depends on the size and location of the farm. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will decide in the next few months where to install the systems funded by the grant, Bassow said.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission held a manure-to-energy summit in early September with farmers and environmental organizations to discuss the benefits of the program.

The most important benefit of such systems is the prevention of pollution runoff into the Chesapeake, Buchheister said. But there are many other positive benefits, he said, including providing a supply of alternative energy for farms.

“Biomass is right under nuclear in terms of being a steady constant source of energy to the grid,” Buchheister said. “It’s also the only renewable source of energy that has huge potential in reducing pollution.”

Gasification also produces a phosphorous-rich ash that can be used to grow crops.

But not everyone is in agreement on the necessity of these systems, Dubin said.

“We’re seeing community disagreement over these projects as far as concerns about air quality, emissions, road traffic and other things of that nature,” he said.