The first thing a visitor notices when stepping inside two of Brad Murphy’s chicken houses is the smell. Usually, the acrid reek of ammonia assaults the senses upon stepping into a 40,000-bird house. But in these two, there’s barely a whiff.
For that reason, manure-to-energy projects have attracted the attention of state and federal officials. Virginia and Pennsylvania are also funding similar pilot projects. But the BHSL system is the only one determined by an independent analysis to lower air emissions while also keeping phosphorus out of the water, says Kristen Hughes Evans, executive director of Sustainable Chesapeake. The nonprofit group is coordinating the manure-to-energy initiative for the Bay watershed states.
In a tightly controlled experiment, two of Murphy’s chicken houses are using traditional propane heat, and the manure the birds produce is cleaned out every six to eight weeks and hauled away to area farms for fertilizer. But in the other two, the poultry litter — a mixture of manure and wood shavings — is kept on site and burned to generate heat and electricity. The University of Maryland is tracking the data.
A sensor tells when a load is ready for pickup, and a top loader — a mechanized shovel attached to a pulley-like apparatus on the ceiling — scrapes up the litter and places it on a conveyor belt.
The ash left behind from the combustion has high levels of phosphorus. But unlike the litter — which because of its bulk is expensive to haul away — the ash is more compact; every 10 tons of manure yields one ton of ash.
The system offers one other significant benefit, in addition to protecting waterways from pollution and giving farmers income from selling their energy and the ash. It cuts down on ammonia fumes, which has implications for farmers’ bottom line and the environment.
There are some significant hurdles before this system would be feasible for most farmers. One is purely logistical: BHSL manufactures its poultry burners in Ireland, and the system shipped to Murphy’s farm took six months to put together, requiring more than two-dozen contractors. O’Connor said that he hopes future systems will not only be assembled here, but also built on the Eastern Shore, creating hundreds of jobs.
A bigger issue is the system’s cost to build. The initial $3 million price should come down if components can be made locally and assembly can be simplified to streamline what is now a months-long project. Even so, it is still likely to cost a farmer several hundred thousand dollars.
“These things are not affordable for the average farmer,” says Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., which represents poultry companies and growers. “But if they work, great. More power to them . . . so to speak.”
BHSL will have to convince the poultry companies, which now supply the propane to their growers, that it’s worth the upfront expense to install on-farm boilers like Murphy’s and retrofit their houses with radiator-style heating. Brad Murphy thinks it’s worth it. “Whatever we’re doing now, it will be better in the next month,” he said. “We’re only four weeks into it so far, and look at the result.”
O’Connor said that he believes that a law change in 2014 that re-classified manure as a fuel and not a waste has opened possibilities in Europe for both the systems and the byproducts, which help to offset the costs. He hopes that change will come in the United States as well, but notes it took three years in Europe.
And not every project will succeed. The administration of former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley granted a contract to a California company, Green Planet Power Solutions, to build a $75 million plant on the Shore, which would have been capable of generating power from 175,000 tons of manure annually. But the company had never built such a facility, and the project never came together. The Hogan administration canceled the contract.
So, the department has continued to invest in manure-to-energy technologies. In September, it awarded $1.4 million to another company, Clean Bay Renewables, to build a plant that could process 80 tons of manure daily and generate 2 megawatts of electricity. It has another $3 million available to invest this year.
“We’re trying to be very methodic(al) about our approach to this in not biting off more than we can chew,” he says. “We have to find profit in this, and that is and will continue to be one of our biggest challenges.”