Pigs Promoted as Novel Energy Source

Posted June 26, 2007 at 6:23pm

Is brown the new green?

Hog, cow and chicken farmers hope so, and they want Congress to bet on it.

Lagoons of hog and cow manure and millions of tons of chicken feces could play a role in fighting global warming while providing a renewable source of electricity, producers say.

Lobbyists are hoping to secure new incentives for the emerging brown power technologies in upcoming energy and farm bills, although they haven’t had much success yet.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) from manure-rich North Carolina is pushing for more incentives on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have proposed companion bills seeking to enact a $472 million tax credit over a decade for biogas.

The tax credit proposal itself hasn’t taken off, but language already marked up in the House Ways and Means Committee as part of the House energy independence package would give states the flexibility to use conservation bonds to fund grants for biogas, said Kind spokeswoman Anne Lupardus.

Kind said last week he also was working to gradually increase the renewable energy grants and loans to farmers to $250 million annually, including funding for methane digesters, solar and wind.

Butterfield, meanwhile, expressed his frustration at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality markup last week that his panel’s legislation didn’t include incentives for energy from hog and chicken waste. Butterfield, whose district has one of the highest concentrations of manure in the country, said Monday he hopes the issue is revisited as part of global warming legislation this fall and said he has received assurances from subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that it will be considered.

Butterfield said the renewable energy debate has focused too much on corn-based ethanol, which is driving up food prices, and said producing energy from animal waste merits more attention.

“We’ve got to invest in it,” he said. “It’s going to require some R&D and it’s going to require some incentives.”

Butterfield said hog lagoons have been a major environmental problem in North Carolina and elsewhere, but he hopes that their conversion to mini-power stations could help mitigate the smells and other environmental problems.

“I want to be one of the leaders in taking us in the direction of constructively utilizing animal waste,” he said. “It would help ameliorate the odor we have that emanates from these lagoons.”

North Carolina has millions of hogs and produces millions of tons of chicken litter each year, enough to generate about 200 megawatts of power, according to a state study.

The massive hog manure lagoons already emit methane, which is more than 20 times as potent a global warming gas as carbon dioxide. Supporters say they hope to score extra financial incentives because of the global warming benefits.

“The farm state guys understand it,” said Michael Formica, a lawyer and lobbyist at the National Pork Producers Council. Members from more urban areas are initially skeptical. “They hear pork and right now pork in D.C. doesn’t have a real good connotation,” he mused.

Formica said producers are also lobbying to at least get the same tax credits that apply now largely to methane gas burned at landfills — about 2 cents a kilowatt hour. The law now gives farm producers half of that credit.

But Formica said additional incentives are needed because it still can cost more than twice as much to produce electricity from a hog manure lagoon than it does from a typical power plant.

Scott Faber, a lobbyist at Environmental Defense, said he’s hopeful Congress will boost support for converting manure lagoons into power facilities.

“It’s among the lowest-hanging fruit if you are looking to reduce the emissions of a potent greenhouse gas,” Faber said. “Capping 7,000 lagoons would power about 500,000 homes.”

Faber said the best chance of boosting the technology may be in the energy title of the upcoming farm bill.

Faber said beefed-up grant programs and loan guarantees would help small- and medium-sized farms in particular purchase the equipment needed to process the manure, although the largest farms would have the biggest economies of scale, and some are already installing “digesters” that extract methane.

Some environmental groups have argued that “factory farms” shouldn’t receive subsidies to turn the lagoons into a power source, and want to ban the lagoons and factory farms in general.

But Faber said the large farms are here to stay.

“Some would like to turn back the clock and return to a time when farms looked like the children’s story with a big red barn, but that time is past and we are living in a time when there are thousands of waste lagoons emitting a very potent global warming gas,” he said.

Some states like Vermont are instituting a “cow power” premium for electricity generated from manure, Faber noted.

“In states where you have the extra bonus of a cow power premium, farmers are able to recover their capital costs after about seven years, and everything after that is gravy,” Faber said.

Other animal wastes hold promise for going green as well. Tyson Foods, the biggest poultry producer, has announced plans to create 250 million gallons of diesel a year largely from animal fat, although its lobbyists are battling to preserve a $1-a-gallon subsidy. The company also has supported efforts to improve incentives for converting chicken manure into energy.

One plant operated by Fibrowatt LLC burns poultry waste to create electricity in Minnesota, with other plants on the drawing board elsewhere in poultry-intensive areas.

But Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said that a far bigger issue for the chicken industry is trying to slow the conversion of the corn crop from food to fuel, which has caused feed prices to skyrocket.

Lobb said chicken litter is generally used as a fertilizer, and conversion to energy would require significant subsidies.

“If you add enough tax dollars to anything it will burn,” Lobb said.

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.