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A New Light Shed on Turkey Manure
By Kathryn Herzog
May 17, 1999
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Renewable energy is big business in Minnesota. Now, turkey farmers in central Minnesota hope a manure-fueled power plant will add to the state's energy mix and ease the public's concern over odor and pollution. Commissioners from six rural counties are asking the Legislature to designate poultry manure as a product that's eligible for renewable energy funding. But some energy analysts say the project is a short sighted reaction to the environmental problems of manure pollution.

MINNESOTA IS KNOWN AS A LEADER in developing renewable energy technology. The latest attempt puts a new twist on an old idea: using animal waste as fuel.

Last fall, turkey farmers and rural county commissioners began talking with Fibrowatt Corporation about building a power plant, fueled by turkey manure. The plant would burn the manure to generate electricity and an ash to be sold as fertilizer. Farmers were looking for ways to get rid of turkey manure because of increasing regulations on manure management. Now, the coalition of farmers and commissioners want state support for the project.

Greg Langmo raises turkeys for Jenni O Foods just outside of Litchfield. Inside his warehouse is a sea of white - 17,000 turkeys. Langmo says a manure-powered plant would help poultry farmers turn a troublesome byproduct into a valuable source of clean energy. "Most of these operations were set up before there was anything called a permit and now they're continuing to regulate us - add more laws, rules, regulations and costs, and we're asking on the Fibrowatt scenario where we burn poultry litter to create renewable energy," said Langmo. "We're asking for the state to give us some assistance."

Minnesota is the second-largest turkey producer in the country. Traditionally, farmers have stockpiled their manure and then spread it on fields twice a year as the weather allows. Complaints from neighbors of odor and pollution have increased over time as farmers increase the size of their operations. Langmo says the new power plant would help farmers get rid of their manure year round, cutting down on disease and odor.

"We need to put the muscle behind these problems to solve them for everyone's good," Langmo says. "Farmers don't want to pollute any more than anyone else. We're probably more sensitive to the environment than most. We can't afford to do it on our own and we need some help. If people want us to clean up then they need to help us."

Langmo and others are asking that poultry manure be designated as a renewable energy resource, therefore eligible for state subsidies. They also want a penny-and-a-half per kilowatt produced from the state's renewable-energy fund to make the electricity more competitive. Langmo and others are looking for a 10-year commitment from the state, totalling almost $50 million dollars.

Sherry Tucker is an environmental lawyer representing Fibrowatt. She says the company's track record operating manure-powered plants in England should be an incentive for Minnesota legislators to back the project.

"They have burned over two million tons of poultry litter as fuel - producing electricity that supplies power for over 110,000 homes per year in the U.K.," Tucker says. "They have taken the excess poultry litter out of the system, leaving about half of what the U.K. produces to be used as fertilizer traditionally applied to land and the rest they use as a renewable source of energy."

There is some question regarding the environmental impact of Fibrowatt's plants in England. Others question if Fibrowatt's environmental standards would meet environmental regulations in Minnesota.

Some observers compare Minnesota's response to the poultry-manure problem to its reaction to leaking landfills in the late 1970s. Then the state-embraced incineration as the single technology to deal with garbage. By the mid 1980s, Minnesota had the largest number of incinerators per capita in the country.

David Morris of the Institute of Local Self Reliance says only later did the state realize the environmental pollution caused by incinerators and try other less-expensive options. He says burning poultry manure is the most costly and least-flexible way to deal with manure pollution. "If the state wanted to put $50 million or even $5 million on the table and ask bidders to come up with the most cost-effective technology, that would be the proper way to go about it," Morris says. "That's the way the State of Maryland is going about it. It doesn't make sense to prematurely annoint a given technology and throw very large sums of money at it."

Morris says Maryland's response to manure pollution could be a model for Minnesota. Maryland officials have set up a research fund and are looking for a variety of disposal alternatives for turkey manure.

The Fibrowatt legislation is expected to come up again next legislative session. State Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson is set to visit Fibrowatt's plants in England this fall. Promoters say if all goes as planned, turkeys could be making energy in Minnesota by 2004.