Md. approves manure-for-power plant at prison

In a move that increases Maryland's commitment to renewable energy, the state Board of Public Works approved a deal Wednesday under which a Virginia company will be given a 30-year lease on land at an Eastern Shore prison to build a plant that will generate electricity out of a mixture of crops and chicken manure.

Under its agreement with ECOCORP Inc. of Arlington, Va., the state will provide a 4.2-acre site at the Eastern Correctional Institute near Princess Anne at an annual rent of $100 for the company to construct the so-called anaerobic digester. The facility will produce power through a microbiological, oxygen-free process that does not involve burning the chicken waste.

Under the agreement, the company will put up roughly $5 million to build the cutting-edge plant and the state will commit to buy the power it generates at an agreed rate for the next 20 years.

"This will really be a grand pilot demonstration project," said James M. Harkins, director of the Maryland Environmental Service, which put the deal together with the help of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and other state agencies. "It will be one of the first in the nation that's run with chicken litter."

Disposal of manure from the Eastern Shore's poultry industry has long been one of the most difficult obstacles to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Currently, many farmers have no practical way to get rid of it except to use it as fertilizer — often in amounts that release more pollution-causing nitrogen than the soil can absorb.

The process O'Malley administration officials envision would use a slurry of wastewater, chicken manure and inexpensive plant crops — including switch grass, barley and corn leaves and stalks — to produce electricity and solid and liquid hydrocarbon byproducts that can be used as fertilizer. Officials said such products can be applied in a much more targeted manner than untreated chicken manure.

Harkins, a former Harford County executive, said he expects the company to begin construction next summer and to begin operational testing in June 2013. He said the facility is expected to produce enough energy to operate 600 homes for a year.

Officials said the plant is expected to provide up to one-third of the electricity needed to operate the sprawling prison complex. The prison now gets its power from a plant on its grounds that burns wood chips, as well as from the Delmarva Power grid, said contract manager David Ferguson. The manure plant is expected to make the prison complex self-sufficient except in emergencies.

Ferguson said anaerobic digestion technology has been used in the United States primarily for cow manure. He said the Somerset County plant will be based on chicken waste disposal technology now in use in Europe.

The plant, which is expected to use about 5,500 tons of chicken and other poultry manure a year, is expected to help the state meet its goal of producing 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2022.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and fellow board members, Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, praised the venture.

"I think Maryland is in a position to actively be a model for other states and other localities," said Kopp, who said she's taken an interest in chicken manure disposal since learning about the problem as a state delegate 30 years ago.

O'Malley, whose administration has promoted the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, said he's looking forward to being there for the ribbon-cutting.