How chickens are powering the circular economy

This article is sponsored by Veolia North America.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To get to the renewable energy plant that’s turning its waste into electricity.

It’s a new twist on an old joke, but it’s true. Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) is restoring a former coal power plant to do exactly that, in the rural community of Lumberton, North Carolina.

Agriculture is an enormous industry in North Carolina. Known as the American Broiler Belt, the state garners hundreds of thousands of jobs from this industry, most of which comes from poultry (PDF). More than 5,700 farmers sell this type of harvest statewide and the local economy is $37 billion larger because of it.

Reflecting this success, chicken coops are expanding, both in size and in number. But because some of these farms produce 700 tons or more poultry manure each year, they’re exceeding the amount of farmland that can use it as fertilizer. It has to go somewhere else, and if not managed properly, unneeded manure can be dangerous to the health of local waterways and the people who depend on them.

Energy from poultry and swine

Ten years ago, North Carolina signed Senate Bill 3 into law, making it the first state to set a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The law calls for the state to receive 12.5 percent of its energy through renewable sources, and supports about 900,000 renewable energy credits focused on poultry and swine waste in particular.

North Carolina didn’t know it yet, but this bill would lead to an interesting relationship between agriculture and an innovative power provider in the southeast. Working with Veolia North America, an environmental services company, GRP developed an answer to a massive waste excess and potentially serious environmental hazard. The utility started by identifying a retired energy plant in Lumberton as grounds for an age-old technology powered by this unique kind of fuel.

Why farm litter? Because there are literally tons of it, and because organic biomass is well known for its value as a renewable energy source. Veolia operates wastewater treatment plants throughout North America that support these operations with fats, oils and greases — FOGs, in industry parlance — helping eliminate its yearly energy cost as a result of a net-zero energy use on an annual basis.

Coup in the coop

The result: What was once a dormant power project is now a 25-megawatt biomass facility, using the organic power of chicken waste to generate electricity, recapture the heat from this generation and use it to process wood chips for domestic animal bedding and international biomass fuel customers. This innovative practice supports local biomass fiber industries by opening new markets for their byproducts and helping them become more profitable through the circular economy.

Here's more on this technology:

Last, but not least, the biomass plant sells still-nutrient-rich ash from the poultry as feedstock for fertilizer and soil amendment, allowing North Carolina to keep its water sources clean, create yet another revenue source for farmers and make a significant contribution to the circular economy.

Pigs, chickens and FOGs have something in common in the eyes of a utility system: They are all clean energy resources. North Carolina diverts as much as 285,000 tons of animal waste from the environment per year, showing just what’s possible in clean energy — even if you don’t find it in the cleanest of places.