BENSON, Minn. – The gray, sandy mix of turkey droppings and other bits and pieces flowing through Greg Langmo's fingers back onto the floor of his barn isn't just funky dirt, it's fuel.
With 16,000 hens gobbling around him, Langmo is standing on a 15-inch layer of turkey litter — some 750 tons of the stuff — that represents a new source of energy.
It will help fuel a $200 million power plant due to begin full-scale production next month. The 55-megawatt Fibrominn LLC plant will be the first poultry litter-fired power plant in the United States, tapping a novel source of renewable energy to produce enough power for 50,000 homes. Its developers are planning similar plants in other major poultry states.
Poultry litter — a combination of droppings, wood chips, seed hulls, shed feathers and spilled feed — has long been spread on fields as a fertilizer. That's cheap and effective, but it can cause nitrates and phosphates to build up in soil, groundwater and runoff. So poultry producers across the country have been looking for another way to get rid of it.
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"We've got a long-term, economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to land-spreading — the only advancement in manure management technology since the development of the spreader," said Langmo, a turkey farmer who's also fuels manager for Fibrominn.
The poultry industry's dilemma created an opportunity for Fibrowatt Ltd., which developed three smaller poultry litter power stations in Britain in the 1990s. As it happens, Minnesota is the nation's largest turkey-producing state.
When the state's producers learned about Fibrowatt, farmers and local officials began an intensive courtship of the company. At the same time, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc. was looking for new sources of renewable energy to comply with a mandate imposed by the Minnesota Legislature that requires it to get 110 megawatts of power from biomass annually.
Poultry litter works as a fuel because it's relatively dry, so it's easy to burn compared with cow and hog manure, which are too wet and smell far worse. Three tons of poultry litter have about as much energy as a ton of coal. The ash can be sold as a phosphate-rich fertilizer. And because it's biomass, it doesn't contribute to climate change the way fossil fuels do because it burns cleaner.
Fibrominn, a subsidiary of Fibrowatt, has a 21-year contract to sell its power to Xcel Energy, which is already meeting the other half of its biomass obligation with plants that burn wood waste.
"This is a small step but a very important step toward doing something to counterbalance the effects of greenhouse gases," said Steve Wilson, a purchased power analyst for Xcel Energy. "I think it's really good for the environment."
Langmo said the plant will consume about 40 percent of the turkey litter Minnesota produces, turning about 500,000 tons of it per year into electricity. Around 20 percent to 25 percent of the plant's fuel mix will be other biomass such as corn stover, native prairie grasses and wood chips, he said.
Fibrowatt Ltd. was founded by British businessman Simon Fraser and his family, who sold their three British litter-fueled plants in 2005 so they could concentrate on their U.S. business. Fibrowatt LLC, based in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown, Pa., is now led by Fraser's son, Rupert Fraser.
Fibrowatt LLC is planning projects in several other major poultry states. Rupert Fraser said they will likely include three plants in North Carolina, one or two in Arkansas, and one each in Maryland and Mississippi.
In Georgia, another developer, Earth Resources Inc., plans to break ground soon on a chicken litter-burning plant near Carnesville. That 20-megawatt project drew a $29 million loan guarantee from the Rural Utilities Service, a federal agency within the Department of Agriculture.
"We're big on renewables right now," said James Andrew, administrator of the RUS.
One longtime critic of the poultry litter plants has been David Morris, executive director of the Center for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based think tank that focuses on helping communities get the most from their resource bases.
Morris said burning turkey litter squanders a resource that's more valuable as a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer than as kilowatts. And he said Xcel Energy's customers will pay higher rates because the electricity from Fibrominn will cost more than wind power or conventionally produced power.
"From a public policy perspective, this stinks," he said.
The nitrates in poultry litter are destroyed when it's burned. Morris pointed out that farmers who raise nitrogen-hungry crops such as corn typically use fertilizer produced from natural gas. He said it would make much more sense for the environment to use poultry litter. He noted that in the rapidly growing organic sector, farmers can't use chemical fertilizers.
Xcel's Wilson countered by saying all energy costs are going up, and developing new technologies costs money. He said Fibrominn has an advantage over wind power because the plant produce power nearly year-round, while wind turbines work only when the wind blows.
And Wagoner said it's just "a fact of life" that biomass power costs more than coal power.
In his barn, Langmo said selling litter for fuel gives poultry farmers a new way to add value. Most producers who contract with Fibrominn will get $3 to $5 per ton, which he added is about what they get selling it for fertilizer.
But the advantage, he said, is Fibrominn trucks the litter away all at once. Farmers don't have to pile it up outside their barns, where it can draw flies and spread odors that bother their neighbors, or put in the added work of spreading it on fields, he said.
The plant itself was a beehive of activity on a recent tour as contractors rushed to meet their deadlines. Welders and grinders sent sparks flying, while loaders sped around outside smoothing the dirt so the paving crews could come in.
Showing off the plant, Wagoner said it's a substantial advance over the original litter-burning plants Fibrowatt built in Britain.
"This is the Cadillac," Wagoner said.