NC falls behind – again – on poultry power goals

North Carolina, an agricultural powerhouse, will fall short – again – on meeting state goals for converting animal waste to electricity.

Extracting energy from barnyard droppings has proven an elusive goal here ever since the state legislature enacted the requirement in 2007 as part of the renewable energy portfolio standard.

Duke Energy notified state regulators last week that it will not meet the requirement for poultry waste this year, a shortfall that will likely require the state’s utility companies to seek a third annual postponement.

“It’s been a long damn time to get developers to come in and buy the litter from the farmers and burn it,” said Robert Ford, executive director of the N.C. Poultry Federation.

On the swine waste side, utilities have never yet met the requirement for turning hog sludge into an energy fuel. For years legislators and farmers had hoped setting energy conversion targets in the 2007 law would provide a healthy alternative to letting hog effluent steep in lagoons.

Meanwhile, the renewables mandate has transformed the state in other ways. North Carolina has leaped to third place nationwide for solar farm development, and the state’s first industrial scale wind farm, called the Amazon Wind Farm, is under construction in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties.

Turkey and chicken droppings have proven easier to work with than pig offal so far, mainly because poultry droppings can be dried out and burned. Currently five incinerators across the state burn poultry poop as a fuel that is used to make electricity, said Jay Lucas, an engineer with the Public Staff office, which represents the public in utility matters. Those plants have met the state’s poultry power goal in 2014 and 2015.

But this year, the statewide requirement for poultry power quadrupled from 170,000 megwatt hours or thermal equivalents to 700,000 megawatt hours. Charlotte-based Duke had previously notified the N.C. Utilities Commission that it was “well-positioned” to meet this year’s goal, but that fell through when a poultry project developer delayed its scheduled April 1 opening to later this year.

Prestage AgEnergy had been planning to open a $20 million facility in the spring. The plant in Clinton is designed to accept 55,000 tons of bird droppings a year and gasify the stuff into a natural gas to power three small generators.

On Thursday, Prestage vice president Michael Pope said the Sampson County facility will have to be re-engineered because it will not meet North Carolina water discharge standards. As designed, the facility would disgorge 60,000 gallons of water daily as a byproduct, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality won’t issue a permit to dump that water into a ditch on the Prestage property.

Agency spokeswoman Bridget Munger said the waste water would exceed federal water quality standards for chloride and sulphate. Agency staff is working with Prestage to come up with a solution, Munger said.

“We’re probably looking at cranking up in late summer,” Pope said. He said the solution will likely include evaporation, recirculation and a truck wash that recycles the water.

The 1.6-megawatt facility, approved by the Utilities Commission in January, will also need an air quality permit from the Department of Environmental Quality, Pope said.

By next year, however, there could be two facilities in the state gasifying poultry waste. Last week, Carolina Poultry Power filed an application to run a 1.35-megawatt facility in Pitt County that would convert about 60,000 tons of turkey droppings into electricity.

Both gasification projects would sell their ashy byproduct as fertilizer, which is the primary use of poultry droppings now. Carolina Poultry Power would plan to sell its green power to Pitt and Greene Electric Membership Corp.

Carolina Poultry Power managing partner Rich Deming said gasifying poultry waste is the wave of the future. It’s cleaner than incinerating solids and he predicts that if it takes off it will steeply come down in price like solar energy.

“Hopefully it’ll be like solar,” Deming said. “At first it was heavily subsidized. Every plant you build you get better at it.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski