Clinton project would convert turkey droppings into a gas for energy

Veterinarian Eric Gonder inspects hundreds of turkeys at the Pierce Turkey Farm in Pitt County.
Veterinarian Eric Gonder inspects hundreds of turkeys at the Pierce Turkey Farm in Pitt County. News & Observer file photo

A proposal to convert turkey droppings into electricity in Clinton would be first in North Carolina to turn the bird waste into an energy-rich gas rather than burning the dung as a fuel.

Prestage AgEnergy proposed a facility last week to generate steam for its own use and electricity for Duke Energy Progress, using turkey droppings supplied by more than 50 farms in eastern North Carolina.

The N.C. Utilities Commission is likely to approve the 1.6-megawatt project this year, and it could be generating electricity as early as January if the power company agrees to buy the electricity output.

But the project shows that the science of turning animal waste into energy is still in a trial-and-error stage in North Carolina. Eight years after the state passed the Southeast’s first renewable energy policy mandate in 2007, technical snags and logistical headaches are making it difficult to tap into one of the state’s most abundant natural energy resources.

Power companies here are required to use poultry waste-generated power under the 2007 law, but had to delay the programs in 2012 and 2013. They met the minimum requirement last year – 170,000 megawatt hours – but in August the state’s utility industry asked the Utilities Commission for another delay this year, because the statewide requirement increases to 700,000 megawatt hours.

“They’re expensive to build,” said Robert Ford, executive director of the N.C. Poultry Federation. “The developers are blaming the utility companies for dragging their feet and the utilities say the developers don’t know what they’re doing and we have to be careful about signing a 20-year contract.”

In their filing to the Commission, the utilities say the projects are difficult to build because of the “small numbers of existing market participants in the United States and the fact that few, if any, of those market participants have direct experience developing or operating those biomass technologies.”

Currently there are just five facilities in the state that use poultry droppings as a fuel to make electricity. All of them incinerate the waste along with a mixture of sawdust, floor scraps, wood chips and other agricultural waste.

The Prestage project plans to convert the turkey droppings into gas and then burn the gas in three on-site generators to make industrial steam. The steam would be used to make pellets in a feed mill. The byproduct, which resembles ash, would be sold as a fertilizer, said Prestage AgEnergy vice-president Michael Pope

“We’re focused on power production and nutrient recovery,” Pope said. “There will be costs savings in the feed production and there’s value in the ash byproduct.”

The facility will cost more than $20 million to build and will pay for itself within 7 years, Pope said. The economic model is based on selling fertilizer, offsetting energy costs, selling electricity and taking advantage of renewable energy subsidies.

The current project will rely on 55,000 tons of bird droppings a year, delivered in 10 tractor trailers daily.

Prestage had planned to build a 4.6 megawatt facility several year ago with Smithfield Foods but a contract never materialized, Pope said. That project had received approval from the Utilities Commission and an air emissions permit from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Ford said that for turkey and chicken farmers, bird droppings are not a liability. If energy companies don’t use the droppings for fuel, the waste can always be sold as a fertilizer.

“We’re not really having a problem getting rid of it.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski