Ramble On

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fibrowatt: More Questions than Answers

Today we will close out the “month of Fibrowatt” on Hawksbill Cabin with a post that feeds back a few questions from the dialog over on Facebook, and then a look again at the 2008 Chesapeake Bay Foundation report I referenced in yesterday’s post and linked below.

Susan G. is a reader on Facebook who has been following the Fibrowatt developments in Page County and elsewhere for the last year or so. She wrote with a couple of insights about the current economic and financial situation, raising questions about the viability of a Fibrowatt plant venture in the Valley. She notes that there have been price increases on agricultural inputs to the poultry industry in the range of 30 percent since 2008, and connects this issue with questions about the public financial commitment to a proposed plant – capital intensive as it would be.

Susan admits, as I will, that the full scope of the working group isn’t well understood; for example, are these questions about public finance part of what the ultimate study will address? Costs of poultry waste to energy systems were an area of “recommended further research” in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation paper…minimal calculations of net present value, payback periods, return on investment, etc. all need to be put together to get an understanding of this part of the question.

In the Hawksbill Cabin Fibrowatt research, I have found two references to these questions – in the interest of a timely post I won’t source one of them today, although I have referenced it in the past. In a recent North Carolina newspaper article there was a notation about Fibrowatt’s failure to come to terms with a power company on pricing for the energy produced; this created a delay in project approval and development. Also, in the Foundation’s 2008 report, competition for raw materials and the inability to agree on the amount of public subsidy were noted as reasons for the delay in a Maryland plant.

As Susan writes, emphasizing the scale and duration of the public commitment that would be required – and the risks the public would likely take on for this plant:

“…it would be interesting to know what provisions exist for the possibility that the plant [ceasing to] operate due to an inability to obtain raw materials. Would the entire burden fall onto the public?”

These are examples of some questions that remain unanswered. Maybe in a few weeks I will return to the topic and see what research has been done in this direction. For now, let’s move on to the findings and recommendations in the Foundation’s 2008 report, where the result was summarized as follows:

“Both farm-scale and commercial-scale litter-to-energy systems may be a potential way to use the excess litter found in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The findings of this report suggest that litter-to-energy systems are, for the most part, technologically feasible; however, there are other challenges that must be overcome to make these systems a viable option in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including high system cost and the issue of litter availability. In addition, there are still a number of variables that need to be better understood in order to determine whether litter-to-energy systems are truly feasible in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and whether or not they should be promoted by organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Program.”

I should note that the Hawksbill Cabin blog and Chesapeake Bay Foundation coverage had some similarities (although I didn’t have a grant to do the research…maybe I should look into it): we both looked at alternatives to the Fibrowatt approach using some case studies, and we both considered supply and demand impacts. And, we both close with a few more questions that remain unanswered – in the Foundation’s report, these are areas for future research, which I will summarize here for brevity.

  • What level of nutrient load reduction can be achieved through the use of a litter-to-energy system? A more in-depth analysis is needed to quantify the reduction resulting from the use of litter-to-energy systems versus the status quo (e.g. land application).
  • What sort of air emissions do these systems release (type and amount)? Although there is already some information on this, additional information would be useful.
  • What impact do the air emissions from these systems have on water quality?
  • Are there potential toxic air pollution concerns that need to be better addressed (such as those resulting from the release of airborne arsenic)?
  • Are state and federal air permitting programs set up to allow for these types of operations?
  • How much excess litter is available in different regions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed? What other factors affect litter supply (e.g. price of energy and other market forces)? Is there enough excess litter to support a large commercial-scale litter-to-energy plant?
  • How much does an on-farm litter-to-energy system cost? On-farm systems are still relatively new and many of the current systems have been constructed as part of demonstration or research projects, making it difficult to determine the cost of future systems.
  • How much money would a farmer need to put up to get a system installed and operating on his farm?
  • What is the potential payback timeframe for a litter-to-energy system? Several ongoing studies are expected to quantify this. Understanding this component is critical in determining the marketability of these systems.
  • Are farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed willing to participate in litter-to-energy projects? If it is determined that litter-to-energy systems are viable and should be promoted in the watershed, then education and outreach efforts will be needed to encourage farmer adoption of these systems.
  • How much time must a farmer devote to operating and maintaining an on-farm litter-to-energy system?
If readers have studies or other citations you'd like me to take a look at and post on in the future, your comments are welcomed here, or you can send them to me by email.  In the meantimes, the Foundation’s 2008 report can be found here for reference:


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