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Turkeys provide a new source of power
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These turkeys spend their days on a bed of wood chips. It's relatively clean in this picture, but in a few weeks it will be mixed with lots of manure. There's a plan to take that "turkey litter" and burn it to make electricity. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Minnesota will soon be home to a new kind of alternative energy plant. A British company called Fibrowatt plans to build a power plant near the central Minnesota town of Benson. The facility would burn a mix of turkey manure and wood chips to make electricity. The project would provide Exel Energy with a third of the renewable energy it's required to buy every year. But some opposed to the project say there are better uses for turkey manure.

Benson, Minn. — Greg Langmo makes his living from turkeys. He has several turkey barns in central Minnesota, one near Litchfield houses 17,000 birds. Heaters warm the barn to a cozy 90 degrees, just the way these two-day old turkeys like it.

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Image Greg Langmoe

"Just like a baby, they're very sensitive to temperature changes and drafts," Langmoe says. "So we'll try to keep them as comfortable as possible."

The turkeys scamper across a bed of wood shavings. The bed is relatively clean and has a fresh, piney smell. In a few weeks the wood chips will be mixed with lots of manure. Normally this mix, called turkey litter, would be applied on local farm fields as fertilizer. But that raises the ire of some rural residents, who are offended by the sharply pungent odor of turkey manure.

British company Fibrowatt thinks it has a plan to end that problem. The company plans to build a power plant at Benson that would burn the litter to make electricity.

Fibrowatt's chief executive, Rupert Frazier, says the $150 million power plant, would give farmers another way to get rid of their turkey manure. He says stockpiles of turkey litter cause problems for the environment like nutrient run off into water ways.

"There is an opportunity for our technology to help balance the environment, to take the steam out of the issue of land application of poultry manure and produce renewable energy using local resources," Frazier says.

There is an opportunity for our technology to help balance the environment ... and produce renewable energy using local resources.
- Rupert Frazier

Making electricity from turkey litter starts with truckloads of the mix. The new plant will need 500,000 tons of it each year. It's then loaded into a furnace and burned at 1400 degrees. Water in pipes surrounding the furnace turns to steam. The steam drives turbines creating 50 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 100,000 homes.

Frazier has fielded plenty of questions regarding the potential smells and emissions from a plant that burns turkey manure. He says emissions from the plant are cleaner than those of a coal fired power plant and Benson residents aren't likely to detect any odor. The smell of turkey litter won't escape because air feeding the furnace comes from outside of the building.

"Which means that if you stand outside those facilities, the air draft is inwards, if the air draft is inwards then the smell can't get out," Frazier says.

But not everyone thinks turkey litter should be burned. Some say it has a more valuable use.

David Morris, vice president of the Minneapolis based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says turkey litter contains dry manure that is easily stored and is a valuable organic fertilizer.

"It's not like hog manure or cattle manure with large lagoons," Morris says. "Dry manure is an excellent fertilizer. Minnesota over the last 10 years has built up a very healthy market for dry manure."

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Image Fibrowatt's planned Benson Plant

Fibrowatt won't disclose the details of a contract it's signed with Exel Energy. But Morris says it's a profitable 22-year deal. He says Fibrowatt will be paid almost 10 cents per kilowatt hour for it's electricity. That's several cents more than electricity that comes from burning coal or natural gas. Morris says in effect Minnesotans will subsidize the use of turkey litter as a renewable fuel when it could be more effectively used as fertilizer.

"It doesn't make sense for us to be providing enormous incentives for the generation of electricity from the burning and inceration of a material that otherwise has a market," Morris says.

David Morris thinks Fibrowatt will have trouble securing financing for the entire project. He says funding will be hard to find if the new energy bill doesn't contain a tax credit for turkey litter fired power plants.

Fibrowatt officials say that's not the case. They say their quest to fund the project is moving forward. They say a federal tax credit would be helpful, but the project will proceed with or without it. They expect the plant will produce electricity by February 2006.

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