Turkey droppings make good leftover for America’s energy

By Jim Roth | Phillips Murrah P.C. | The Journal Record

[ NOVEMBER 23, 2009 – OKLAHOMA CITY, OK ] – Americans across the country are gearing up for what is generally the most anticipated meal of the year, ready to gather with friends and family to enjoy traditional recipes and the ensuing catnaps around the television.

Thanksgiving is a chance to enjoy and indulge in some of our favorite culinary pastimes and it’s a holiday responsible for the consumption of nearly 45 million turkeys nationwide each year. One part of the meal that many of us will likely experience is the issue of what to do with the leftovers, a notion that is often limited to refrigerator space or one-pot soup recipes. This holiday season, starting just before comprehensive talks on energy policy by global leaders, we should take pause to consider how “leftovers” from our favorite Thanksgiving dishes are actually contributing to the advancement of alternative fuels. Sound like a stretch? Consider the following.

Just a short time ago, a company named Fibrowatt LLC opened a power generation plant in Benson, Minn., fueled by none other than turkey droppings. Yes, turkey droppings. The company uses 500,000 tons of turkey “litter” to power a few counties in rural Minnesota, burning the fuel and using the energy to heat steam turbines to make electricity. The plant has a capacity of 55 megawatts and some commentators believe that the resulting emissions have the same environmental impact as if the droppings naturally decomposed on their own. Some environmentalists, however, argue that the plant shouldn’t be considered “clean” since it is a source of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants like existing power plants. The plant’s permit approves of the way the emissions are controlled and subsequently cleaned before release. All debate aside, Fibrowatt seems to be taking strides towards the use of available bio-based fuels, as it banks on Minnesota’s very large poultry industry.

The American biofuel market is serving up some of our favorite side dishes in the form of new energy as well. Researchers at North Carolina State University have been developing sweet potato hybrids that are capable of producing large amounts of biomass for ethanol production. The hybrids are designed to have much higher levels of starch, which in turn means more sugars that can be converted to ethanol. Sweet potatoes are currently much more expensive than corn but yield higher amounts of ethanol per unit, bolstering the Thanksgiving mainstay’s prospects of being a real player in the bio-ethanol market in the future.

The sweet potato’s close relative, the traditional potato, has been used in anaerobic digestion facilities to generate bio-gas from potato waste. A Canadian potato producer recently built such a facility on-site and estimates that the technology will eliminate 900 miles of trucking per day since the waste no longer needs to be transported, saving both fuel costs and transportation related emissions.

It’s not just the starchy vegetables that have whetted agricultural producer’s appetite for alternative fuels. Gills Onions, the California-based, world’s largest producer of onions, was recently awarded the 2009 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award. The award recognized Gill’s state-of-the-art system that converts 100 percent of the company’s onion waste into methane, which powers 100 percent of Gills Onion’s base-load electricity needs. The use of the technology has reduced solid waste from the plant by 75 percent, or 300,000 pounds a day.

These are just examples of the possibilities that lie ahead for the biofuels industry. Although none of them are yet truly sustainable or even viable alternatives for traditional power generation on a large scale, they represent some of the best of what American ingenuity has to offer the energy markets. We’re a country rich in resources and creativity, and with an eye towards real advances in the energy sector, that’s something we can all be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Jim Roth, a former Oklahoma corporation commissioner, is an attorney with Phillips Murrah P.C. in Oklahoma City, where his practice focuses on clean, green energy for Oklahoma.