After nearly a century, the creature-turned-commodity that transformed Maryland’s agricultural landscape—the humble chicken—is doing it once again.
A century ago, commercial chicken meat was virtually nonexistent. In 2015, Maryland produced 303 million chickens and more than 1.7 billion pounds of meat. This fact would astonish Wilmer Steele, the enterprising farm wife who, in 1923, wondered if selling chickens for meat might be a good idea. Her backyard experiment of raising chickens, not just eggs, to sell for the table took off. The result: today, chicken production is big business in Maryland. But along with it comes poultry manure—and lots of it.
While Steele would be surprised by the millions of chickens being raised today, she would be far more impressed by the use of chicken litter to create electricity to run farms.
Profits and Pollution Overshadow Protection
While the waterways of the East Coast facilitated industry centuries ago, bringing jobs, people, growth, and powerful financial capacity, they also served as a convenient disposal center. For decades, the soils and rivers leading to the sea were exposed to the effects of poultry manure spreading. Pollution, they say, is the price of progress, and the growing corporate benefits (read: profits) outweighed the drawbacks. And anyone who has been close to a poultry operation or its downstream waters is familiar with the pungency of some of those drawbacks.
With the accumulated deposition of manures on crop acreage, the land literally “can’t take it anymore.” Runoff and nutrients affected the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay with nitrogen and phosphorous with such alarming levels that a Pfiesteria outbreak in the late ‘90s caused policymakers, farmers, and environmentalists to acknowledge—and finally address—the severity of the problem. In 1998, the Water Quality Improvement Act (WQIA) was passed by Maryland General Assembly.
Fast forward to 2016, where the combined forces of policy, technology, and community cooperation have taken the huge problem of poultry manure and converted it to positive advantage. All with a helping hand from the Emerald Isle, where poultry-producers-turned-innovators see going “green” as more than their landscape color.
“For every 1,000 birds going to market, they leave behind 1.2 tons of manure,” says Patrick Dight, spokesperson at Limerick, Ireland-based company, BHSL. The company’s unique Energy Centre, developed by poultry producers Declan and David O’Connor, received a Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) demonstration grant. Praised by the Maryland Governor, farmers, and environmentalists, their processor operation is now the first of its kind in the US, converting poultry manure into poultry profit.
But none of this would have happened without a confluence of partnerships, as explained by Maryland poultry producer Bob Murphy, whose Eastern Shore Maryland farm was selected as the demonstration site for BHSL.
Stop Trucking, Start Burning
“I had retired from the local power company and I was always interested in farming, so when a friend of mine sold me 50 acres and suggested I put up a chicken house, that was the beginning,” explains Murphy, adding that in a few short years he went from 20,000 to 160,000 birds at his Dorchester County operation.
“Eventually we bought more land, put up more chicken houses, and all the while I kept thinking, we need to find a way to handle all this manure.”
Murphy recalls how the MDA’s Animal Waste Technology Fund (AWTF) was the initial link bringing together the Irish innovators and his Maryland farm.
According to Louise Lawrence, resource conservation chief at MDA, “The AWTF grant program, which grew out of the original 1998 WQIA, provides incentive and dollars for companies to demonstrate how their technology can both better manage animal waste and reduce on-farm waste streams, plus repurpose manure for fertilizers, energy, and other products.”
In Murphy’s operation, they produce 3,650 tons of manure every year, which he says “has historically been trucked to other farms to use as fertilizer.” But he concedes that this is not a viable long-term solution.
BHSL’s CEO Declan O’Connor recounts that his farm was heading towards a total loss and shutting down “as we could not keep up with our nutrient-mandate requirements.”
“We were facing the same dilemma as the Maryland producers—having to transport manure further and further away to keep the nutrients out of the watershed, and we knew we couldn’t keep this up. A technology already existed to convert manure to heat, but we took that further.”
He says the BHSL Centre uses a fluidized bed technology, a process that is not new, but one they improved upon.
“We use diesel fuel to ignite a bed of specially formulated sand. After collecting the litter into a storage shed, it’s conveyed to the chamber where the combustion process is started up by the diesel fuel and then the introduced litter becomes the fuel. As the biomass is added, the burner is no longer needed and there is a continuous combustion process.”
The reasoning behind fluidized sand he explains is that “The thermal transfer rates within this bed are very high; it’s a constantly moving process with abrasive qualities that help break up the manure, and this can accommodate manures with different moisture levels to maintain a steady process of operation.”
O’Connor adds that the heat in the system “which reaches about 900°C, even exceeds the scientific standard temperature of 850°C to kill all known pathogens.”
“As the manure fuel is burned, the hot gases from the closed burning unit rise through negative pressure and are pulled across a heat exchanger that heats hot water. The litter reduces to just 8% ash and these leftover particles are then collected as a valuable phosphorus- and potassium-rich product to augment fertilizers,” explains O’Connor.
First Steps to Long-Term Change
After perfecting the process, BHSL made the connection to Maryland producers after attending a manure-to-energy summit in 2011, where the team met with several senators from poultry producing states. At O’Connor’s invitation, the policymakers subsequently visited BHSL in Limerick to see the Energy Centre in action.
“We were very confident they would be responsive. They came over and were very excited. They said, ‘We’ve seen the future. We need this at home,’ and that was the tipping point for us,” recalls O’Connor.
With the blessing of the policymakers, BHSL then made their pitch to MDA for an AWTF partnership.
“We found the company and the BHSL Energy Centre to be eligible to apply for an AWTF grant,” says Lawrence, who adds that their final selection process for grant awards is very strict.
“The company needs to have sound business background and be fiscally stable, have a verifiable track record of performance, be an affordable technology that producers can realistically pay for, and must be able to provide support and assistance to make it a sustainable operation—not just in the demonstration project, but down the road, in multiple operations.”
With a grant in hand, and a financial commitment by BHSL, the project was up and running by December 2016 and Murphy explains how well it’s working today.
“The heat produced has options for use. It can either be converted to electricity for use on the farm or sold on the grid. We are very happy with how well it’s heating our chicken houses.
“We have a big buffer tank and pipes that resemble a radiator system. So, the heated water goes through the piping in each of the houses. As these give off heat to the air, we have huge ventilation fans that blow on them and disperse the heat throughout the facility. Now, what this does is create a much lower humidity and improved air quality, because it is dry heat, and that reduces the amount of ammonia in the air,” says Murphy.
With this process, Murphy explains that his operation is no longer propane-dependent, giving their operation a much-reduced carbon footprint in the bargain.
“We are seeing about a 95% reduction in energy costs by using the manure as a heating source. This is especially important for a new batch of chicks who must be started at about 90°F.
“Plus, we now have a continuous supply of heat as one chick will produce enough manure to heat three chicks later on,” adds Murphy. “And the continuous supply of litter is a guaranteed source of heat throughout the year.”
Murphy says they are going to look at using the energy source to pump cool water throughout the chicken houses in summer, which will help reduce humidity and maintain the high air quality they experienced in winter.
“The BHSL technology gives us the ability to collect our energy data and configure how much we need to run our operation. And if we generate more than we need, we can sell it on the grid. But the benefit of lowered ammonia and better ventilation is that we are finding it helps develop a better product. The birds are healthier, they are weighing in at higher weights, and we are getting a higher feed conversion. This helps us in our grading; as producers are graded on energy and feed conversion and market weight.”
The next improvement with his onsite electricity source will be to power the new LED system he is installing, which “will save voltage in all our houses and provide a better lighting system—this is so crucial to poultry producers.”
With around-the-clock connections to the corporate office, O’Connor says all of the BHSL Energy Centres are monitored in real time to ensure optimal operations. “The technology can detect any potential trouble spots where early intervention can save time and eliminate headaches for farms down the road, or across oceans.”
Murphy says he tells his Eastern Shore poultry colleagues about the BHSL Energy Centre. When they come to visit, he says “they are blown away by the process.”
“I tell them ‘look, you have to get on board, this is the way of the future.’ We’re taking tons of this manure and instead of being burdened by the costs and time involved to take it away, we can make it work for us, right here on our farms.
“I got a million dollars in grant money from the State, and BHSL invested 3 million of their own. This is clearly working, and we have far less to worry about with nutrients.
“Instead of trying to fight this manure problem and agonize over environmental issues, we now have a solution that’s actually paying us back in free energy and better production.”