Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Coop to Co-op

Jul 04, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Barbara Pash

On a brisk Friday afternoon in February, a small group gathered at a chicken farm outside of Pocomoke City. Orange spray-painted circles indicated where the tanks, engine room, and processing equipment would go. Steven Bolgiano handed out shovels for the ground-breaking of what promises to be the first chicken litter-to-electrical power facility in Maryland.

Bolgiano has been working towards this day since 2010, when he launched Planet Found Energy Development. He is now executive director of the privately-owned company in Berlin, with another office in Pocomoke City.

Bolgiano is starting small but thinking big. The electrical power facility at the Pocomoke City farm should be fully operational by the end of summer. Within five years, he hopes to build 50 cooperatives of about 10 farms each, located within a five-to-10-mile radius of each co-op. After that, more co-ops may be in the future, depending on evaluation with the state agriculture department.

“This is the first system in the world that organizes poultry farming to benefit the farmers,” he says.

Bolgiano’s plan appears to have the backing of state officials. He is collaborating with the state departments of agriculture and the environment and the Maryland Energy Administration on the cooperatives.

According to local newspaper reports, state agriculture secretary Earl Hance was present at the Pocomoke City ground-breaking. And, he was quoted as saying that if the system works as intended, it could “revolutionize the poultry industry.”

Bolgiano is not alone in talking about poultry poop to electrical power. Trade journals discuss an array of technologies. Prospective projects are announced, then seem to stall.

Says Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior water quality scientist, “There have been lots of fits and starts. The technology is not simple. And, making it economically viable is the challenge.”

In 2013, for example, Governor Martin O’Malley announced a deal to buy electricity from a litter-to-electricity plant that a California company intended to build in Caroline County.

Angela Visintainer is director of economic development for Caroline County’s Economic Development Corporation. The last time she talked to the California company—one year ago—it hadn’t found an appropriate site in the county. “There are no plans to build in Caroline County,” she says.

“It’s dead as a doornail,” Bill Satterfield says of that project. In fact, as far as Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, a not-for-profit trade association in Georgetown, Delaware, knows, nothing is happening.

“Our members keep looking. But no such plant exists in the entire Delmarva Peninsula,” he says, citing a combination of technical complexity and financial viability.

Julie deYoung, of Perdue Farms, in Salisbury, says it bid on last year’s announced state contract but lost out to the California company. As for Perdue, she says, “we’ve talked to 50 different companies about litter to energy but we have no agreements with anyone at this time.”

Bolgiano has traveled to Europe and China to examine technologies there. Scientists and engineers worked with him to devise the system, one uniquely suited to Eastern Shore poultry farmers.

Image title
The system is anaerobic poultry digestion, a.k.a. biodigesters, with the added component of nutrient capture. The system reduces most of the phosphorus from the manure. The remaining nitrogen can be used as an environmentally-acceptable fertilizer. The system extracts methane gas from the manure for heat and electricity.

The Pocomoke City farm is a pilot project. The farm’s 1,500 tons of chicken manure annually from one million chickens will operate a 26-kilowatt generator, enough to satisfy the farm’s electricity needs for one year, along with heat for its eight bird houses.

Bolgiano figures that 100 biogas cooperatives would contribute 30 megawatts annually to the state goal of 20 percent of renewable energy by 2022. The electricity generated would not only power the farms in the co-ops but enough would be left over for people in neighboring communities to buy at reduced rates.

Plus, 100 co-ops would also process all of the chicken manure in Maryland, thus solving the long-standing problem of chicken litter in a state where poultry farming is a $1.7 billion business.

Private investors are footing the price tag for the Pocomoke City farm system. “A biogas co-op is much more cost efficient than a single farm system. Each co-op with a 260-kilowatt capacity costs less than five times as much as a single farm system,” he says.

Bolgiano says his system benefits farmers and the environment. “Private concerned citizens instead of venture capitalists decided to get involved and make this a reality,” he says.

Five Million Chickens

Bolgiano’s system may be the first in Maryland. But in neighboring Pennsylvania, a chicken litter-to-electricity system is already up and running. Credit goes to an Annapolis company, EnergyWorks Group.

Patrick Thompson is president and CEO of EnergyWorks, an energy infrastructure and energy generation company. Projects include wind turbines around the world and power generation in a regional mall.

“To me, it’s about sustainability,” Thompson says. “What we do today affects the future.”

Image titleSix years ago, EnergyWorks created a division, EnergyWorks BioPower LLC, to tackle the problem of animal waste. Chicken litter became the focus. Last year, in 2013, BioPower opened its first facility, a $30-million gasification system, on a farm in Gettysburg.

Hillandale Farms is the largest egg production farm in that state and one of the largest on the East Coast. Housed at four layer sites, its five million chickens produce 240 tons of manure daily. Belts at the layer sites collect and transport the manure to storage barns.

BioPower’s gasification plant employs a thermal process that, in simple terms, converts manure into steam and electricity. The facility generates up to 3.24 megawatts of electricity continuously.

A portion of the electricity is used for the system; the excess is exported to the Hillandale farm complex. BioPower owns and operates the system. The farmer buys electricity from BioPower.

On the environmental side, Thompson says, “by processing the manure, we are eliminating long-term storage and land application, which has significant air and water quality benefits for the region.”

There is a reason the system is located in Pennsylvania. At the time it was built, that state had the first viable nutrient trading program in the region. Unlike other gasification facilities whose primary function is energy production, BioPower’s system also recovers sterilized minerals for reuse as fertilizer or an animal feed ingredient. BioPower owns and sells the fertilizer as nutrient trading credits.

Municipalities, factories and other water-discharge permit-holders can buy nutrient credits to offset discharges in excess of their permit limits. Both nitrogen and phosphorus usually hover in the $2 to $3 per pound range although nitrogen has sold for as high as $15 per pound.

The Hillandale Farm complex is large enough to be considered community-scale, comparable to a multiple-farm co-op. Thompson plans to standardize and replicate the system, and he is eyeing Maryland.

“We hope to build more systems around the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” he says. “We are looking at opportunities in Maryland now.”

Water Quality

Other efforts are underway to address the manure-environment issue and, in particular, water quality. They range from Sustainable Chesapeake’s thermal initiative and Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s biofilter system to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) People Land Water project.

Sustainable Chesapeake, a Richmond, Virginia-based nonprofit focused on water quality, is partnering with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA Conservation Innovation, and Chesapeake Bay Funders Network.

Two different thermal technologies were installed last year on five farms in Maryland and neighboring states. The technologies convert poultry litter into heat for bird houses. They also turn the excess litter into nutrient-dense ash that can be transported long distances economically and sold as fertilizer.

Image title
The initiative ends in fall of 2015. Virginia Tech scientists will then document the commercial value of the fertilizer. “If you can move and sell it to other markets, it’s a global commodity,” says Kristen Evans, Sustainable’s president.

Last fall, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy built biofilter systems on two farms, in Caroline and Queen Anne’s counties. The system removes 30 to 90 percent of nitrates in the water. Midshore’s Drew Koslow says the systems will be monitored for the next three years, and the results reported to the EPA and Maryland agriculture department.

“They may become one of best practices” in water quality, he says. Whatever happens, as a result of preliminary testing the U.S. Department of Agriculture now rebates 85 percent of the system’s $19,000 cost per farm.

Also last fall, UMCES kicked off People Land Water, a project whose focus is water quality. The National Science Foundation is funding the project, at $300,000 each year to 2018. By following best management practices during those five years, the project will determine if water quality can be improved and how long it will take.

Tom Fisher, chief scientist and professor at UMCES Horn Point Laboratory, is engaging with farmers and residents in four watershed communities around Greensboro, in Caroline County.

“Hopefully, the project will show that best practices, one of them being the use of manure, work,” Fisher says.