Turkey Poop Powers Electric Plant
Jackie Crosby - Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
Greg Langmo likes to say he was just a "fat, dumb and happy turkey farmer" until the summer of 1998. That's when he walked into a meeting of the Meeker County Board and got blindsided by a courthouse full of riled-up residents.
The mounds of manure he and other turkey growers were stockpiling on their farms to sell as fertilizer had become a nuisance, seemingly overnight.
"They said, 'It smells, it creates runoff, it collects flies,' " said Langmo, 48, who raises about a million turkeys a year on his farms near Litchfield. "The commissioners told me to solve the problem or they'd solve it for me."
Langmo placed an S.O.S. call to a British company he'd read about that was turning poultry litter into electricity. Nine years later, his solution has arrived: a $225 million plant an hour away in Benson that will turn poop into power.
The plant, in the heart of west-central Minnesota's turkey farming region, is scheduled to begin operating June 25. It'll be the nation's first large-scale power plant fueled by poultry manure.
More important, supporters say, it will be an important step in the country's quest to develop more sources of renewable energy. About half a million tons of turkey litter will be burned each year, generating enough energy for an estimated 50,000 households.
But the plant comes with controversy. Even in an era when renewable energy has moved from environmental wish lists to mainstream discussions embraced by President Bush, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and labor unions, the business of burning poultry manure has ruffled some feathers.
And not because of the smell, of which there promises to be none.
Turkey litter is a mixture of manure and bedding material, such as wood chips, straw, sunflower shells and feathers. It has provided a low-cost fertilizer to farmers for decades. Some of them now worry that their costs will go up and that there won't be enough litter for their fields if turkey growers can get a better price at the Fibrominn plant.
And although turkey litter may be a renewable source of energy - an estimated 2 million tons of it is generated each year statewide - it takes a lot of poop to make electricity. The mixture doesn't burn as hot as wood, which makes it a labor-intensive and expensive fuel source, critics say. They charge that the "gee-whiz" factor has discouraged research into more creative and economical renewable-energy solutions.
"Being green means being informed and being sophisticated," said David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an energy expert and longtime critic of the litter-burning project. "Simply because you're taking a renewable resource and turning it into something else does not mean that it's environmentally benign or economically worthwhile."
But the technology, which applies to turkey and chicken litter, appears to be catching on. As cities expand into farming areas, residents' concerns over disease and run-off pollution from manure are mounting.
Fibrowatt, which built three smaller litter-fired plants in England, has sold them and moved its headquarters to Newtown, Pa. The company has plans for five projects in the poultry-rich states of Arkansas and North Carolina in the next two years, and is looking at sites in Maryland and Mississippi, said Carl Strickler, the chief operating officer.
In Benson, a prairie town of about 3,300 about three hours west of the Twin Cities, many residents consider the litter-burning plant a sign of hope and pride, despite some early fears - and snickers.
Benson Mayor Paul Kittleson admits that he considered the litter-burning plant a featherbrained idea at first. But after giving the sniff test to a plant in Thetford, England, he warmed to the idea.
"Believe me, if it had stunk, they wouldn't be here," he said.