In a study released by the Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative, which was hosted on the Shore last week by Eastern Shorekeeper, poultry litter ash and biochar sources appear to be suitable and comparable phosphorus and potassium fertilizers for crops for our soils in the Mid-Atlantic. Other groups concerned about the manure problem on the Eastern Shore, such as the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, who has funded other studies around finding ways to convert manure and litter into ‘value added products’.
The Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative was launched in 2012 to demonstrate and objectively evaluate manure-based energy systems operating on several private farms in the Chesapeake Bay region and has focused on farm-scale thermochemical (thermal) systems.
Of concern for lower Eastern Shore is nitrous oxide and particulate matter. While the report concluded on an upbeat note, the technologies tested demonstrated a range of air emissions. From the report, “Because of the high potassium content of poultry litter, most vendors will need to control particulate matter emissions. Particulate matter proved challenging for several of the vendors who were not able to demonstrate that the technologies would be feasible for installation in Bay states with low thresholds for particulate matter emissions. Two technologies (BHSL and the NCSU pyrolysis technology) demonstrated the potential to meet all Bay state permitting requirements. Four of the technologies (Global Re-Fuel, Blue Flame boiler, Bio-Burner 500, and Ecoremedy gasifier) require additional controls for particulate matter to meet permitting thresholds in Maryland. Three of the technologies (Global Re-Fuel, Blue Flame boiler, and Bio-Burner 500) require additional reductions in nitrous oxides (NOx). System tuning for NOx emissions was recommended as the next step prior to consideration of NOx emissions controls. Three of the vendors demonstrated that, despite the nitrogen content of poultry litter, farm-scale thermal systems can be designed as low NOx emissions technologies.”
The report did produce a list of Lessons Learned, noted below:
1) On-farm thermal systems are not a good match for every farm. They require considerably more management than propane heating systems and, depending on the farm, they may not be cost effective. On-farm thermal systems also require more time to operate, especially because the technologies are still in the early phases of commercial deployment.
2) The success of a particular technology on one farm does not mean that it will succeed on another farm. The characteristics of poultry litter vary significantly between farms, requiring farm-specific adjustments to the system. Success requires collaboration between the vendor and the farmer.
3) Poultry litter ash and biochar are valuable plant nutrients. Depending on the process, poultry litter ash contains in the range of 14 to 18% phosphorus fertilizer and 13 to 24% potash fertilizer. Plant availability of the nutrients also varies by process but is in the range of 80 to 100%.
4) To support regulatory compliance, vendors should be prepared to supply data on air emissions. In states with strict particulate matter emissions thresholds, advanced air emissions controls may be needed to trap and remove fine particulate matter when poultry litter is used as a fuel.
5) State rules vary significantly with respect to on-farm thermal poultry litter-to-energy technologies. Only two technologies identified through this initiative have the potential to meet permitting requirements for all the Bay states.
6) Initial capital expenditures for installing systems to heat poultry houses currently range from $87,000 to over $300,000 per house to install. As these technologies mature, prices will likely come down over time.
7) Costs vary significantly, but a face-value comparison may not be the best way to determine value. A comparison that normalizes the cost may be a better way to evaluate different technologies. For example, a unit such as dollars-per-BTU-delivered is worth considering in addition to the total cost of the system. On-going operation and maintenance costs should also be considered.
8) Farm-scale thermal systems can improve cold weather ventilation and reduce relative humidity in poultry houses resulting in better in-house air quality and improved bird health. These potential production benefits warrant further investigation.
9) Organic poultry farms may offer the best opportunity for deploying farm-scale thermal systems. In the Chesapeake region, organic production requires 3 to 5 times more propane than conventionally produced poultry. If a thermal, manure-based system can reduce propane use and improve bird health and feed conversion, organic integrators may especially stand to benefit.
Opinion: The Real Problem
While Northampton has been clear that it does not want industrial scale chicken houses in the county, it should be just as clear that it will not be issuing special use permits for litter incinerators. Accomack has chosen to pursue this industry for whatever gains, yet it should also be prepared to deal with issues that the industry creates, including how to manage manure, on its own without dragging the citizens of Northampton into it.
While groups such as the Farm-to-Manure-Initiative and Keith Campbell should be applauded for attempting to find a solution to the litter and manure problem being created by industrial agriculture, it should also be noted that this is a problem that communities such as Accomack (and to some degree Northampton) have brought on themselves. While the industry may be generating large amounts of revenue, who is reaping the profits, and who is paying the costs? If regions must resort to such measures such as incineration, it would tend to point to a sustainability problem.
Technology is never going to solve an ethical problem. The poultry industry is cruel, inhumane and barbarous, so there will be repercussions for engaging with it. There ain’t no free, and if we continue to eat these birds, we may as well get used to dealing with consequences of those actions. The most elegant solution to the litter problem may be to refrain from eating chicken and eggs altogether.