Maryland Moves Forward with Controversial Chicken-Waste Electricity Project

Published April 2, 2013

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced his approval of a project to turn chicken waste into electricity, but the idea still faces opposition from consumer advocates and some environmentalists.

Environmental Benefits Asserted
Green Planet Power Solutions presented a bid to state officials to turn chicken waste, containing chicken droppings and incidental waste products such as feathers and chicken feed, into electricity. Electricity generated by the project would count toward the state’s 15 percent renewable power mandate. Proponents claim the chicken-droppings electricity project will benefit the environment and the economy by turning waste into valuable electricity.

“Converting poultry litter into energy helps Maryland prevent nitrogen from the polluting the [Chesapeake] Bay and fills an important need for power generation on the Eastern Shore,” Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler said in press statement. “This plant built as a result of this commitment will benefit Eastern Shore farmers, our economy, and the Bay.”

Farmers currently use chicken waste to fertilize crops organically. Rainfall washes some of the residue into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which elevates nitrogen levels there.

High-Pollution Electricity
Environmental activists, however, warn turning chicken waste into electricity may transform a modest water pollution problem into a larger air pollution problem. Environmental activist groups such as Food & Water Watch, Green Planet, and the Sierra Club have expressed concern or outright opposition to the proposal.

A new study on the potential environmental impact of chicken-droppings electricity adds weight to environmental activists’ concerns. Environmental scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University conducted a 15 month study of a similar proposal in Virginia, finding chicken-waste electricity would produce substantial pollution and any chicken-waste electricity plant would have to be located in an area currently devoid of much air pollution in order to avoid creating a serious air pollution problem.

“Although use of technologies that convert poultry litter into energy could potentially limit the amount of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it could also introduce a new air pollution source,” the scientists warn in the report. “Both small- and large-scale combustion processes increase ambient air concentrations of potentially harmful substances such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx), oxides of sulfur (SOx), particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOC), dioxins/furans, and other substances. In addition to harming air quality, the alternate use of poultry litter to generate energy could also potentially affect current poultry litter management practices—such as its transport and the income and employment that its use generates—which could subsequently affect the health of the population in the Valley.”

“Whether this solution is indeed better for the environment or public health is uncertain,” the scientists observed.

The report explained, “The decision made … on how to manage poultry litter could affect social, economic and environmental factors that impact health. In preliminary community meetings, residents and environmental groups expressed concerns about effects of the potential facility on health and the area economy.”

The study noted citizen opposition was strongest in areas where chicken-to-waste facilities are being considered.

Food & Water Watch Opposition
Although any asserted water quality benefits may be outweighed by negative air quality impacts, the project’s net economic harms are more certain. As Food & Water Watch pointed out in a fact sheet on the project, Maryland taxpayers will be paying Green Planet Power Solutions $600,000 in subsidies every year. These subsidies will be in addition to state officials obligating Maryland consumers to purchase the chicken-waste electricity at substantially higher prices than conventional electricity.

Food & Water Watch described the project as “greenwashing corporate welfare.”

“Burning poultry litter may actually produce as much or more toxic air emissions than coal plants,” and, “The negative impacts of poultry litter incineration are likely to be borne disproportionately by already vulnerable communities,” Food & Water Watch claimed in its fact sheet.

Wide-Ranging Economic Harm
In addition to taxpayers and consumers worrying about the negative economic impacts of taxpayer subsidies and higher electricity prices, farmers fear the diversion of rich organic fertilizer to electricity production will create fertilizer scarcity and drive up fertilizer prices.

“The high nutrient content makes poultry litter an excellent organic fertilizer for crops,” the VCU scientists noted in their study. “Due to the relative scarcity of phosphorus in agricultural areas that lack livestock production, demand for poultry litter outside of the watershed is high.”

“I have a positive opinion of turning poultry waste into energy where it is cost-effective,” said Daniel Simmons, director of regulatory and state affairs at the Institute for Energy Research. “But the real key is that these projects should compete in the market for electricity like everyone else and not receive above-market rates for their electricity.

“Sadly, it looks like Maryland is subsidizing waste-to-energy and costing Marylanders in the process,” Simmons added. “This facility would not be built if government allowed free-market pricing mechanisms to work without government intrusion.”

Simmons said poultry litter-to-energy facilities should be held to the same environmental standards as other power plants.

“If they meet the requirements, they should be allowed to operate,” he said. “The state, however, shouldn’t overlook any pollution issues associated with poultry waste-to-energy facilities simply because their advocates claim these facilities are ‘green.’ Air pollution is air pollution, regardless of what energy source is responsible.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.