Report urges more manure-to-energy efforts

Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states struggling to clean up the degraded estuary should do more to encourage projects that convert farm animal manure to energy, a new report says.

The report released Thursday by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory body, suggests more than a dozen policy changes aimed at boosting development of manure-based energy projects. One proposal, for example, would require utilities to purchase a certain amount of such power, as they must now from solar and wind facilities.

Converting farm manure to energy would help alleviate a problem in some areas of the six-state bay watershed, including Maryland's Eastern Shore, the report says, where too much poultry and livestock waste is generated to be safely used as fertilizer on crop fields. Regionwide, runoff of farm animal manure accounts for 15 percent of the nitrogen and 36 percent of the phosphorus causing algae blooms and dead zones in the bay, according to Environmental Protection Agency modeling.

"It's the only energy that I can think of that addresses some of our energy-sustainability issues — does not rely on unrenewable natural resources — and reduces pollution at the same time," said Ann P. Swanson, commission executive director.

The O'Malley administration recently issued a request for proposals to build a power plant using manure as a fuel, which has generated "substantial" response, according to a Department of General Services spokeswoman. And the Board of Public Works approved a deal last month for a Virginia company, EcoCorp, to build a facility at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Princess Anne that would generate electricity by "digesting" rather than burning poultry manure and crop waste.

Maryland, however, trails neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia in the number of smaller-scale, farm-based manure-energy projects either in operation or in the works.

Environmental groups are split on manure-power projects, with some supporting them and others saying they're a Band-Aid approach to the water-quality problems posed by concentrated animal operations.

State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and farmer, said manure-based energy projects show promise. But financing remains a hurdle, he said, and farmers still need to be shown that animal waste is more valuable for generating electricity or heat than it is for fertilizing crops.

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