Turkey litter approved as biomass

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 5/17/00.

A turkey-litter-fired power plant for west central Minnesota took a step forward in the recent legislative session. The Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura amended the 1994 biomass mandate for Northern States Power Company (NSP) to include turkey litter as an approved biomass.

The 1994 agreement with NSP allowed the power company to store spent nuclear rods at its Prairie Island facility, but required it to purchase a quota of power from biomass. Of the 125 megawatts NSP must purchase, 75 remain unfulfilled, and the new legislation would allow Fibrowatt to fill 50 megawatts.

Steve McCorquodale of Paynesville, a former commercial applicator and vocal critic of the proposal, calls the inclusion of turkey litter a multi-million dollar subsidy and vows to continue to fight against the plant.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 105-24, the Senate passed it 50-15, and Gov. Ventura signed the bill into law at the end of April.

"We're delighted with the governor's endorsement today, and we are looking forward to contributing to Minnesota's renewable energy program," said Rupert Fraser, CEO of Fibrowatt, the British company that is trying to build the power plant in west central Minnesota. "We have been overwhelmed by the support in the Legislature and would like to thank the many supporters in west central Minnesota who have helped to make this possible."

Fibrowatt has three turkey-litter-fired power plants in England. Fibrowatt started exploring the Minnesota market over a year ago, when Meeker County turkey farmer Greg Langmo contacted the company.

Last year, the Legislature provided $200,000 to study Fibrowatt's proposed plant, while refusing to grant a direct subsidy.

The inclusion of turkey litter merely allows negotiations between NSP and Fibrowatt to begin. Biomass fuels have a higher cost than traditional fossil fuels. Because of the mandate, NSP will have to pay higher costs for the energy created from biomass.

Al Krug, manager of renewable resources for NSP, said his company had initial discussions with Fibrowatt last fall and more discussions since the passage of the updated biomass law. "Now we need to get together and see if we can put together a contract that is fair to our rate payers and to Fibrowatt," he said.

Krug said NSP will be looking for the most cost-effective way to meet the mandate. As for Fibrowatt, Klug said, "We're certainly glad to have the option."

The biomass mandate has a deadline for the plant to be in operation by Dec. 31, 2002. NSP must submit its power purchase agreement with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission by Sept.1, 2000.

The plant
In addition to the purchase agreement, Fibrowatt would need to find a site for its plant. Nina Butcher, Fibrowatt's communications manager, said the company is considering over 30 sites for a plant in west central Minnesota. "We're looking seriously at each of these sites," she said.

Requirements for the plant site include at least 15 acres of land; 10-ton roads that provide access in all directions; a 69 KV electrical line; and access to water for cooling, natural gas, and turkey litter.

Fibrowatt's newest plant in the United Kingdom burns 500,000 tons of poultry litter a year and provides 38.5 megawatts of electricity, according to the company. The proposed plant for Minnesota would be based on this model.

Fibrowatt estimates that the plant would create 30 high-skilled jobs, between 100 and 200 indirect jobs (in support services and transportation), and 300 jobs during construction. The company says up to $8 million dollars will be spent locally by the $75 million plant.

Fibrowatt claims that covered transport trucks and a specially designed storage facility eliminates odor from the plant. The company has hosted several visits by industry representatives and government leaders to its plants in the United Kingdom to report on its existing operations.

Options for turkey farms
Environmental and regulatory concerns prompted Langmo to contact Fibrowatt in the first place. Langmo, whose parents have a cabin on Lake Koronis, calls himself a lake lover and says Fibrowatt's opponents are mostly interested in maintaining their current monopoly on turkey manure.

He fears increasing regulations will make land spreading of manure more difficult in the future. The Fibrowatt plant would be more convenient because it could pick up turkey litter despite the weather conditions, whenever the farmer wants to get rid of it.

And, Langmo said, it reduces a producer's liability compared with the pollution risks of land application.

While biomass have a higher initial cost, Langmo argues that fossil fuels and nuclear power have significant environmental costs that are not reflected in their price.

Langmo said the plant will burn the litter and produce electricity and ash. He said the ash is high in phosphorus and could be used for fertilizer or as a feed supplement for livestock.

Both Jennie-O Foods and a local turkey grower expressed their support for the plant as a valuable option for disposal of turkey litter.

Jennie-O, which operates a number of turkey farms in the Paynesville through its subsidiary EBO Farms, was initially noncommittal to the Fibrowatt proposal. But as the company has learned more over the past year, they've become definitely in favor, according to Don Handahl, a vice president and consultant at Jennie-O.

"We have not made a commitment of any tonnage (of litter) as of yet," Handahl said, "but we probably will."

EBO farms, which raises 12 million turkeys annually, has a department that applies manure commercially. Selling manure to Fibrowatt would seem to be at odds with this arm of the company, but Handahl said the benefit to the company would be flexibility. "Just like any other business, it's always good to have alternatives," Handahl said.

"One of the reasons all producers should be interested in this are the environmental concerns," he added. "Who knows what the future will bring?"

Eric Setterberg, who raises 275,000 birds on a farm just north of the city of Paynesville, is the last independent turkey grower in the immediate area. He raises ten flocks of birds per year and cleans the turkey litter out of his finishing barns twice a year.

Setterberg, who is Langmo's brother-in-law, estimates that he produces about 3,000 tons of litter per year. He called his situation ideal, as a local farmer takes all his manure for land application.

He feels Fibrowatt is an excellent alternative for farmers. Farmers, he said, realize how valuable turkey manure is, but, "there are only so many places you can spread manure Ôin general,' whether it's cow, pigs, or turkeys."

Criticism of Fibrowatt
McCorquodale, who is now running for Doug Stang's seat in the Minnesota House, has lobbied against the Fibrowatt proposal with county commissioners and before the Legislature.

He calls Fibrowatt secretive and laments that Minnesota's electrical customers will pay higher rates so Fibrowatt can burn what he views as a valuable resource.

"It's still a subsidy," he said of the biomass amendment. "You can disguise it any way you want."

McCorquodale says the seven and a half cents that Fibrowatt wants per kilowatt is five cents more than the cost of fossil fuels. For 50 megawatts over a 10-year contract, he says the cost to Minnesota rate payers will be $20 million.

McCorquodale, who also represents the Minnesota Solid Applicators Association, thinks it's crazy to spend that kind of money to cure a manure problem that he feels doesn't exist. With the subsidy, he fears Fibrowatt will be able to drive up the price of manure and push aside land applicators.

Fibrowatt would need 500,000 tons of turkey litter annually for its plant. Some estimates of litter production in Minnesota have estimated that the state produces 2 million tons of manure. The University of Minnesota Poultry Extension Specialist estimates the state has 1.3 million tons of litter from turkeys and layer chickens.

"They didn't see a 500,000 ton pile of manure sitting around,"ÊMcCorquodale said, of Fibrowatt's motivation for coming to Minnesota. "They saw money."

And while he admits the plant will certainly have local economic influence in the area where it is located, McCorquodale thinks it will have a negative effect overall as existing land applicators are eliminated by the "subsidized" competition.

He looks forward to gaining closer scrutiny to the company's economic analysis and plans to continue opposition to the plant. "They're going to have a tough time to get their plant in Minnesota,"Êhe vows.

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